Here Are Some Enrollment Numbers That Actually Matter To People In Need

Bill Scher

As you have surely heard, the first set of Obamacare enrollment numbers have been released. Unsurprisingly because of the federal website problems, the numbers are lower than initially anticipated.

Though there are notable bright spots. Applications have been submitted for households totalling 1.5 million people, with another quarter-million paper applications in process. Most of the applicants have been determined eligible for coverage in the state-based marketplaces called “exchanges”, though nearly 1 million of those just haven’t chosen a plan yet which is to be expected because they have months to decide before the enrollment period is over. The other half-million have either purchased a plan through the exchanges or have taken advantage of Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid.

Recognizing the pent-up demand, the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent explains that if the website gets fixed, “you could see a real enrollment spike.” More importantly, The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn stresses that early enrollment numbers just don’t matter very much:

The October numbers are low, which was to be expected given the website problems and tendency of people not to buy insurance right away. But what matters isn’t the figures for October or even November. It’s December and the months that follow—particulalry into next year, as the prospect of paying fines for uninsurance start to . “It’s too early to say anything useful,” says Jonathan Gruber, professor of economics at MIT. “And, really, I don’t think we can draw any significant conclusions about effectiveness of the law until March, because any firm conclusion requires effects of indivdiual mandate to be felt.”

Yet because we’re at the onset of a major new program, and a potential harbinger of a broader ideological shift that has suffered an initial setback, the media and Obama’s Republican antagonists sense blood in the water and are hyperventilating over early numbers regardless of their import.

However, if we all were geniunely concerned that enrollment into government programs was properly maximized, perhaps Beltway reporters and congressional Republicans would spend more time on these numbers:

* 13 million people are not enrolled in food stamps through the SNAP program, even though they are impoversished enough to qualify.

* 7 million children not enrolled to receive welfare benefits, through the TANF program, even though they are impoverished enough to qualify.

These are not new programs that are in the middle of ramping up, where glitches are to be expected and will eventually be rectified.

There are decades-old programs, both launched by a liberal Congress in the 1960s though altered by a conservative Congress in the 1990s. Any problems here won’t be taken care of by some overtime contractor work. The problems here are systemic and require legislaitve solutions.

The current structure of the programs is perversely designed to make accessing benefits difficult — for example, an 18-page form is required to receive food stamps. Simple fixes, such as easy one-stop enrollment into both programs get little attention. The issue is nowhere on the media radar or on Congress’ agenda.

Millions of America’s poor are poorer than the law says they have to be because of these fundamental flaws. That’s actual suffering. Whereas lower-than-expected early Obamacare enrollment numbers harms no one, because the enrollment period isn’t near its deadline.

There are people actually working on Obamacare’s problems. The same cannot be said for food stamps and welfare.

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