3 exchange numbers that are meaningless

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services and the White House have been releasing multiple numbers in an attempt to show the federal health insurance exchange website, HealthCare.gov, is operating smoothly now. But how many of those data points really matter?

Below are three examples of numbers released by federal officials that don't provide any insight into how the Affordable Care Act is working or how insurers are faring in the early days of the post-reform market, as reported by the Motley Fool.

1. How many HealthCare.gov glitches are fixed: The Obama administration announced last week that HealthCare.gov is working for most users after government officials completed more than 400 fixes to the website. Although the Motley Fool writer admits that's an "impressive number, especially considering that they accomplished this in less than two months," he said it doesn't really signify anything of value. Neither does the claim that federal officials made about errors on HealthCare.gov dropping to less than 1 percent. These numbers are essentially meaningless for insurers, especially when 10 percent of exchange applications have been inaccurately transmitted, creating enrollment verification burdens for them. What does matter? How many more technical fixes are needed for the exchange website to function smoothly. That's a number we simply don't know yet.

2. Number of visitors to HealthCare.gov: After federal officials met their self-imposed Nov. 30 deadline, they said more than 1 million consumers visited HealthCare.gov the next business day, followed by 950,000 more visitors the day after that. Although the number of HealthCare.gov visitors is critical to the website's functionality--a high volume of visitors could potentially slow down its operation--it's the number of enrollments that really matter to the success of exchanges, according to the Motley Fool. In the beginning of the exchange rollout, HHS said 4.7 million people visited the HealthCare.gov website on the first day and 7 million unique visits were made to the federal exchange within the first few days of operation. But very few of those consumers actually enrolled in a health plan, making those numbers inconsequential to the ultimate success of the healthcare reform law and the exchanges.

3. Number of people signed up on HealthCare.gov: The Obama administration is expected to announce later this month that 100,000 people signed up for health coverage through HealthCare.gov in November. Although that represents about a quadrupling of enrollments from October's lower-than-expected 27,000 sign-ups and December's numbers will likely increase as well, the numbers don't signal any real meaning. That's because sign-ups aren't the same as enrollments. Sign-ups represent consumers who have chosen a health plan through their exchange, but they're not actually enrolled in that plan until they pay their first premium. At this point, we don't know how many people have signed up and paid a premium. But we do have anecdotal information, including that the Physicians Health Plan of Northern Indiana said only 20 percent of its exchange applicants have paid, the Motley Fool reported.

To learn more:
- read the Motley Fool article