Response to $1B Obamacare marketing campaign is grossly overstated


As Obamacare exchange websites crashed left and right across the nation October 1, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell it was a “great problem to have” because “It’s based on the fact that the volume has been so high and the interest is so high.”

But it wasn’t.

Facts, rather than wishful thinking, trickling in October 2 and 3, revealed that initial reports of huge, overwhelming response to the government’s $1 billion-plus Obamacare marketing campaign were, like rumors of Mark Twain’s death, exaggerated.

For one thing, the massive website crashes turned out to be the result of slipshod design, not high demand. For another, response and actual enrollment turned out to be minuscule fractions of both the over-26 population and of the uninsureds. From state to state, site visits were in the thousands, not millions, and enrollments ranged from a high of several hundred down to zero.

Design, not demand

“[I]t remained unclear whether the array of problems…stemmed more from heavy traffic or from flaws in design,” as the New York Times gently waffled. “Federal officials…conceded that factors beyond high use had contributed to the Internet delays,” they added.

Commentary magazine was more forthright. “The interesting part of” Sebelius’s “great problem to have,” their blog noted, was that those massive website failures

aren’t caused by a massive influx of traffic. If they were, the sites would have crashed under the pressure, producing error messages from server companies that the websites were down. The issues being reported are entirely design-based: drop-down menus that weren’t populated with text and coding gibberish on several pages that was never replaced with the appropriate language. Many of the pages were entirely inaccessible, with error messages asking visitors to “Please wait” and later, after going through the steps to open an account an error message told users “Your account couldnt [sic] be created at this time.”

“Uncertain”? Or abysmal?

As the White House crowed about “an initial rush of people flocking to the [federal] site — 4.7 million unique visitors in the first 24 hours – …health plans [were] uncertain whether they had any new customers,” the Washington Post reported.

[I]nterviews with health insurers, industry consultants, nonprofit groups and people trying to sign up for coverage suggested that the number was very low. Some companies that are offering plans on the federal site said Wednesday that no one had signed up with them. “Very, very few people that we’re aware of have enrolled in the federal exchange,” said one insurance industry official, who like many in the industry, spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern for possibly offending the Obama administration. “We are talking single digits.”
A spokesman for one major Blue Cross Blue Shield plan in a southern state said that, as of Wednesday afternoon, it had not received word from federal health officials of any customers who had completed enrollment in the plan — even though a local news outlet had reported about a man who thought he had signed up.

Federal officials are now refusing to release the number of visitors to their website, but blogger and USA Today columnist Glenn Reynolds says the 4.7 million figure, even if true, is nothing to crow about, posting at Instapundit that

4.7 million uniques in a bit over 24 hours isn’t that much –it’s in the neighborhood of what I get in a month, and sometimes I get significantly more — and InstaPundit runs pretty reliably. Sure, it’s just a blog — but it’s also, you know, just a blog, not a major IT project backed by 3 years of effort and the resources of the federal government. So if I can handle something over one-thirtieth of the traffic of the nationwide ObamaCare exchange network without a hiccup, why do they suck so badly?

The feds aren’t the only ones retreating from grandiose claims of overwhelming response. As the Los Angeles Times reported,

California’s health insurance exchange vastly overstated the number of online hits it received Tuesday during the rollout of Obamacare.

State officials said the Covered California website got 645,000 hits during the first day of enrollment, far fewer than the 5 million it reported Tuesday.

The state exchange had cited the 5 million figure as a sign of strong consumer interest and a major reason people had so much difficulty using its $313-million online enrollment system.

And it’s not just California.

Louisiana’s leading health insurance company reports that not one person has yet successfully enrolled in a new health care plan offered through the Affordable Care Act,” reports the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

“‘It was not as intense as we had anticipated,’ Blue Cross Blue Shield of Louisiana’s vice president of communication said of the company’s sales.” The insurer, the paper notes, “spent $60 million in preparation of the October 1 rollout.” Other Louisiana health insurers claim they’re still waiting for numbers from the first day. They shouldn’t hold their breaths.

Over in Texas, Politico reporter Jennifer Haberkorn checked with insurers throughout the state and tweeted, “Have spoken with several groups in Texas and so far haven’t found anyone who has actually enrolled anyone.”

Twenty-four people had enrolled in the Connecticut exchange by noon Tuesday, according to USA Today, but then enrollments spiked sharply, at least on a percentage basis. By end of day, Congressman Jim Himes boasted on Twitter, “Today, the CT health exchange @AccessHealthCT received 28K visitors and took 167 applications for health insurance. Day 1.”

By Day 2, this massive outpouring of consumer demand had more than doubled. “Since opening yesterday, @AccessHealthCT has been visited by almost 80k people and taken 373 applications for health insurance,” he tweeted.

Apropos of nothing at all, Connecticut’s adult population is 2,517,020, and 373 applications out of 80,000 responses is a sickly 0.4 percent closing rate.

All in all, a heck of a return on investment for America’s third-biggest advertising campaign – more than $1 billion of your tax money.

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