When reporting the final number of signups for the Affordable Care Act’s first open enrollment period, Obama administration officials conflated the number of people who signed up for dental coverage with the number of people who signed up for new insurance plans on the law’s marketplaces, Bloomberg News reported on Thursday.
The administration has previously reported those figures separately. For instance, in May, the White House reported that 8 million people had signed up for medical plans and about 1.1 million had signed up for dental coverage.
But in September, the head of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced simply that 7.3 people were paying for coverage. That gave the appearance that the law had surpassed its goal of 7 million signups — even though, without the approximately 380,000 dental plans, enrollment didn’t actually exceed that number. Since Americans can purchase a separate, standalone dental plan through the law’s marketplaces, adding the two figures together ends up double counting people.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services confirmed on Thursday that the dental plans were “erroneously” counted toward the final number that was released in September.
“A mistake was made in calculating the number of individuals with effectuated Marketplace enrollments,” an HHS spokesperson said in a statement provided to ThinkProgress. “The correct number of individuals with effectuated Marketplace medical coverage as of October 15 is approximately 6.7 million. Our target for 2015 open enrollment remains 9.1 million individuals. Moving forward only individuals with medical coverage will be included in our effectuated enrollment numbers.”
The administration has faced some criticism for not being transparent enough about enrollment data. Opponents of the law have frequently suggested that the White House is somehow “cooking the books” to make the law seem more successful than it actually is — and Bloomberg News’ report adds fuel to that fire.
“Instead of offering the public an accurate accounting, the administration engaged in an effort to obscure and downplay the number of dropouts,” Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), who chairs the House Oversight Committee, said in a statement.
Charles Gaba, a Michigan-based blogger who closely tracks ACA enrollment, told Bloomberg News that he is “appalled” about the mistaken number and doesn’t understand why the administration needed to include dental coverage, since the accurate enrollment figure was close to 7 million. “I really don’t see what the point would be of being misleading about that number,” he said. “Even if it had been 6.9 million, I don’t see that as being a terrible thing.”
It’s a needless mistake that hurts the White House’s credibility much more than it may have improved public perceptions of the law.
There are already other positive data points the administration could rely on to make the case that Obamacare is working. The majority of enrolled Americans say they like their new plans, and the projected premiums for 2015 are lower than expected. The law has effectively lowered the national uninsured rate.
But, thanks to the inclusion of the dental plans and the inaccurate enrollment number, congressional Republicans — who have already been stoking the recent controversy over health care economist Jonathan Gruber’s comments that Obamacare only passed because of the “stupidity of the American voter” — have brand new ammunition against the health reform law.