The Conversation

Obamacare: Blockbuster or Quirky Art House Hit

According to progressives at the Washington Post and elsewhere, the roll out of the Obamacare exchanges was a smashing success. Ezra Klein and fellow Wonkbook writer Evan Soltas have a post reflecting on the success of the first day of the health care exchanges:

The top story all day was that Republicans had shut down the federal government because President Obama wouldn't defund or delay the Affordable Care Act. The other major story was that the government's servers were crashing because so many people were trying to see if they could get insurance through Obamacare.

Obamacare, they claim, is a victim of its own blockbuster success. To back up their claim the authors link a story at Reuters which claims the exchanges "got more than 10 million visits." That does sounds like a lot of people. But it turns out the numbers aren't very evenly distributed and there is reason to think they might not be accurate.

According to Reuters, 7.5 million people logged on in one state, New York. And if you click over to the New York Times they report an even higher total of "10 million attempts" to log on to the NY exchange the first day.

Meanwhile the federal exchange, which handles traffic for 36 states including some big states like Texas and Florida, received 4.7 million unique visitors.

As Philip Klein pointed out yesterday, something seems off with these numbers. How does a state with 20 million people generate double the web traffic of a conglomeration of 36 states with a total population of over 200 million people? One possibility is that the New York state numbers are just wrong. If so it wouldn't be the first state to have put out inaccurate numbers.

California's exchange, which like New York's is run by the state, announced Tuesday that it had received "5 million page hits." For those who know anything about the difference between hits, pageviews and unique visitors this metric was a little suspect. Nevertheless it was a big number.

But Wednesday afternoon the LA Times reported the California exchange had "vastly overstated the number of online hits it received." The actual number of visitors to the site was 514,000, about one-tenth the original claim. Oopsie! California claims 7,700 people started applications the first day.

Based on reporting by the NY Times, Reuters and others here are some figures from states around the country: [Note I'm calculating percentages based on state population not eligible population for interstate comparison purposes.]:

  • California, population 38 million, reported 514,000 unique visitors (1.3% of state's population) and 7,700 applications (1.5% of unique site visitors)
  • Illinois, population 12.88 million, reported 65,000 unique visitors (0.5% of state's population) and 1,100  applications (1.7% of site visitors).
  • Kentucky, population 4.38 million had 78,000 unique visitors (1.7% of population) and 4,700 applications (6% of site visitors).
  • Colorado, population 5.18 million had 55,000 visitors (1% of population) and 1,450 accounts created (2.6% of site visitors).
  • Arkansas, population 2.94 million, had about 16,000 visits (0.5% of population) with no word on the number of applications.
  • Connecticut, population 3.59 million, reported 80,000 unique visitors (2.2% of population) and 373  applications (0.5% of site visitors).

As you can see there is a range in the popular response of between 0.5% and 2.2%. And out of this response somewhere between 0.5% and 6 percent of visitors actually follow through.

Getting back to New York, the state claimed 10 million hits but according the AP there were only around 9,000 sign ups. Even if you assume that 3 percent of the state's population logged onto the New York exchange site Tuesday (higher than in any state listed above), that would only be 600,000 visitors. The claim that 10 million attempts were made seems suspect.

And the New York Times isn't helping to clarify matters by reporting "30 million web requests" were made in New York. What is a web request? Is that equivalent to a hit? It's certainly not a measure of unique visitors since New York only has 20 million people at least some of whom were not on the exchange Tuesday.

In any case, New York appears to be an outlier. It received more sign ups than California which has nearly double its population. The high demand in New York may be the result of high prices the state has been saddled with since progressives meddled with the insurance market in the early 90s.

The federal exchange has not released a tally of the number of people who signed up on the first day. However, we can use some of the numbers above to come up with a reasonable estimation. First notice that out of a population of roughly 209 million, 4.7 million (2.2%) logged on. That's right in line with Connecticut and in the range of the other states mentioned above. If we assume somewhere around 2.5 percent (an average of 5 states above) of those who logged on actually signed up we get 117,500 people.

If we add to this the results from California, New York, Kentucky, Colorado and Connecticut (states not covered by the federal exchange) we've accounted for about 90 percent of the U.S. population. In terms of new insurance signs ups that adds up to roughly 140,000 people. So a reasonable ballpark guess is that 150,000 people created accounts nationwide.

That's not an insignificant number. It's also not an overwhelming one given the $684 million marketing budget (not to mention nonstop plugs from the President and various celebrity spokespeople). There is a massive push behind this and the actual turnout has been modest so far.

Health insurance and entertainment are apples and oranges, but purely in terms of public response to advertising dollars we can compare it to how many people turn out for a newly released film. On it's opening day the horror film Insidious 2 took in $20,231,363. If you figure $14 a ticket that's nearly 1.5 million people who saw the film. That's not a blockbuster like Iron Man 3 but it's a good turnout.

By contrast the foreign language comedy Instructions Not Included opened August 30 with a very respectable $1,928,863 (in just 348 theaters). Assuming $14 a ticket that's 137,775 people on opening day, something like the number who actually signed up for insurance on the Obamacare exchanges.

The fact that millions of people visited the sites may represent high demand or it may simply be curiosity about the exchanges people keep hearing about. It's too early to assume those figures represent overwhelming demand especially when a relatively small number of people have used the exchanges to purchase insurance. Obamacare's roll out wasn't a blockbuster. It's more of a quirky art house hit.

Of course Obamacare has something going for it that no film ever has. A mandate from the government. Ultimately people will come to the exchanges because they must. In the long run that makes it hard to judge success based on turnout.


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