Government & Politics

Kansas health care enrollments beat expectations

About 57,000 Kansans found health insurance coverage through the federal government's online marketplace, more than officials expected, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported Thursday.

The state experienced a surge of signups from March 1 through April 19, the end of an extended enrollment period allowed by HHS. Enrollments since the opening of the marketplace in October was about 8 percent higher than the 53,000 the federal agency had predicted.

Kansas was among 31 states in which enrollments exceeded HHS expectations, despite a rocky rollout of the federal marketplace website and strong antipathy toward the federal health care overhaul within the state's Republican-dominated government. Nationwide, total enrollments exceeded HHS expectations by 13 percent.

Gov. Sam Brownback and most fellow Republican officials believe mandates in the 2010 federal health care law championed by Democratic President Barack Obama will prove costly to consumers and hurt the economy. They prevented Kansas from setting up its own insurance exchange or partnering with the federal government, and the state this year joined a compact with eight others hoping for congressional approval to exempt themselves from the law.

Yet nearly 28,000 Kansas residents found insurance coverage after February, according to the HHS numbers, nearly doubling enrollments that previously ran behind expectations. Also, 31 percent of the total enrollees are from 18 through 34 years old, a figure that pleases supporters of the federal law, sometimes called the Affordable Care Act.

"We just need to embrace it and move on," said Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger, perhaps the only Republican official in Kansas to praise the overhaul. "The numbers look good. While it's too early to call the Affordable Care Act a success, it's moving us in the right direction."

Many Republicans remain skeptical. Partly, it was because HHS figures didn't disclose how many of the Kansas residents who enrolled in health plans through the online marketplace have paid their first premiums to lock in coverage. Also, several said some of the Kansas residents enrolling through the exchange likely lost their previous coverage because of the federal overhaul's requirements.

"There are still too many variables and unknowns surrounding Obamacare," said Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, a reconstructive plastic surgeon who often serves as the Brownback administration's spokesman on health care issues. "The only thing we know for sure is that Obamacare remains an expensive and cumbersome burden on small businesses and individuals across our state who have seen their insurance costs skyrocket."

HHS also reported that nearly 45,000 Kansas residents, 79 percent of those who enrolled in health coverage through the online marketplace, received subsidies allowed by the federal law. Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee Chairwoman Mary Pilcher-Cook, a Shawnee Republican and strong critic of the federal overhaul, said it shows that few consumers actually can afford coverage.

"What it means is that there is no way that this is going to be sustainable," Pilcher-Cook said.

Praeger disagreed, saying that without subsidies to help people buy private coverage, the alternative for ensuring that more Americans have health insurance is government coverage.

And Cathy Harding, executive director of the Kansas Association for the Medically Underserved, called the online marketplace "a huge success" despite its slow start.

"I'm really stunned that this many people enrolled," Harding said. "It really says a lot about how many people in our state want affordable health coverage and can now access it."