The Affordable Care Act enrollment figures for February were released yesterday afternoon, and for the most part, the numbers looked pretty good for those hoping to see the U.S. system succeed.
But news consumers can be forgiven for thinking the opposite. The Hill ran this headline: “ObamaCare enrollments dip.” The Washington Post had a similar message: “Obamacare enrollment drops off in February.” The conservative Washington Examiner told readers: “Obamacare signups slow down in February.”
Sounds discouraging, doesn’t it? January’s enrollment totals were heartening, but if you just skimmed the headlines out of D.C., you’d think February represented a step backwards.
The months HHS has been using for tabulation don’t correspond precisely to the calendar, because of state reporting methods and where weekends fall. As it turns out, “February” is actually February 2 through March 1. That’s 28 days. “January” is actually December 29 through February 1. That’s 35 days. Plug in the numbers, and you’ll see the average daily enrollment for January was 32,744 and for February it was 33,673. As you can see in the graph, the pace actually increased a bit. Among the very few who noticed were Charles Gaba of ACASingups.net and Sy Mukherjee of ThinkProgress.
At a superficial level, the raw monthly totals offer a misleading picture. Someone sees 1.2 million sign-ups in January, followed by 943,000 in February. That looks like a drop.
Until we’re reminded that February is the shortest month.
Stepping back, it’s worth noting that these month-to-month totals are interesting, but their broader importance is limited. I always make a point to highlight the totals as a way of documenting ACA progress, and there’s a political salience as more Americans get invested – literally and figuratively – in the law’s future, but the success of the system will not rise or fall based on monthly tallies and the degree to which they meet preliminary projections.
As Rachel has noted on the show more than once, when a very similar system was established in Massachusetts eight years ago, officials worked under the assumption that enrollment would be slow at first and would then improve over time. In the very first month of the state’s open-enrollment period, a grand total of 123 residents of Massachusetts actually signed up.
And while that may sound like a disaster, no one much cared – in fact, no one even bothered to acknowledge the total at the time, and the figure was only dug up later.
The Affordable Care Act is following a similar trajectory. And since the Massachusetts system is working quite well, that’s probably a pretty good sign.
By most estimates, by the end of March, a little over 5 million consumers will have enrolled through exchange marketplaces, and a similar number will have gained coverage through Medicaid. That’s not quite what the CBO projected before the process began – whether the 7 million figure could have been reached if healthcare.gov worked from the outset we’ll never know – but it’s a perfectly fine number when it comes to sustainability.
Keep this in mind the next time you’re perusing the Beltway media’s headlines about the system’s progress.