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3 Obamacare Numbers That Really Don't Count (And 1 That Absolutely Does)

You've probably heard lots of numbers thrown around lately pertaining to Obamacare. Some of those numbers are relevant to better understanding how things are going with the landmark health-reform legislation. Others, though, aren't all that important. Here are three Obamacare numbers that really don't count for much -- and one that absolutely does.


1. Number of website bugs fixed
Jeffrey Zients, the official brought in to oversee the salvage effort for the website, stated this past week that programmers fixed more than 400 bugs. That sounds like an impressive number, especially considering that they accomplished this in less than two months. But that number actually means nothing.

A little more than a month ago, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said that "a couple of hundred" fixes were required to the website. Whether the figure was 200 or 400 or 4 million is irrelevant. What's really critical is how many bugs remain unfixed. And that's a number we simply don't know at this point.

2. Number of visitors
Federal officials said that more than 1 million Americans visited the site on the first business day following the Nov. 30 deadline for resolving many of the problems that plagued the Obamacare website during its first two months of operation. The next day brought more than 950,000 visitors. Those numbers, however, are inconsequential in the big scheme of things.

How can the number of visitors to the website not be critical? Granted, the number can make a difference -- especially if the volume results in significant slowdowns. But the primary thing to understand here is that the number of visitors doesn't matter. Actual enrollment figures matter.  

We saw in the early period of operation with that lots of Americans visited the site -- 4.7 million on the first day alone. However, relatively few enrolled in health plans. Think back to the heady dot-com days around 15 years ago. Many companies claimed that it was the number of eyeballs that counted. Most of them ultimately discovered, however, that eyeballs don't automatically result in success.  

3. Number of "sign-ups"
Official enrollment numbers haven't been released yet for November, but initial estimates are that around 100,000 signed up on Figures for December will surely be higher, since the website is operating more reliably than in the past. In reality, though, those numbers don't count for much.

You're probably thinking: "Wait a second. Didn't you just say it's the actual enrollment numbers that matter?" Yes, you did read that -- and it's true. The problem is that the number of "sign-ups" provided thus far aren't the actual enrollment numbers.

The figures released so far from Health and Human Services reflect the number of Americans who have selected a health plan. However, people aren't actually enrolled with an insurance company (in most cases, anyway) until they pay the first premium. And we don't yet know how many of the Obamacare "sign-ups" have paid.

What we do have is some related anecdotal data. Physicians Health Plan of Northern Indiana, for example, said that only around 20% of its Obamacare applicants have paid. That shouldn't be too surprising. According to Web researcher Baymard Institute, two-thirds of website shoppers who select items for purchase don't end up buying those items.

The magic number
There is one number that's of utmost importance for Obamacare. This statistic is so important that the success or failure of the health reform legislation depends on it. What is this magic number? The number of young, healthy Americans who really enroll in Obamacare health plans.

Fear about what this number might be had some big names shying away from jumping fully on board with the health exchanges. UnitedHealth Group (NYSE: UNH  ) CEO Stephen Hemsley expressed concern months ago that too few of the initial wave of enrollees would be healthy. Not surprisingly, UnitedHealth opted to limit its participation in state exchanges.

Aetna (NYSE: AET  ) CEO Mark Bertolini raised this issue after the initial launch debacle. Bertolini worried aloud that younger Americans would be less likely to give the website a second chance. He noted that if enough people, particularly healthy individuals, don't sign up, major problems will ensue.

The core issue is that insurance companies rely on healthier members to effectively subsidize the costs of less healthy members. If there aren't enough healthy members, insurers lose money. The insurers then raise premiums, which can cause even fewer healthy individuals to buy the insurance. This ultimately can result in what is known as a "death spiral," in which the insurance plan becomes unviable.

Not every health insurance company felt such anxiety. WellPoint (NYSE: ANTM  ) , the nation's second-largest health insurer, jumped wholeheartedly on the Obamacare bandwagon. The company chose to participate in the exchanges of every state where it operates.

Will millions of young Americans enroll in Obamacare plans and prove WellPoint right? Three numbers are key to the answer for this question: 3, 31, and 14. Open enrollment ends on March 31. Only then will we know the number that really counts for Obamacare.

One Obamacare number that's great news for you
Zero. That's an Obamacare-related number you can smile about. It's the cost of our report called "Everything You Need to Know About Obamacare." This special free report explains the critical facts about Obamacare and how they impact you. Don't hesitate, though. It's not often that we release a free guide containing this much information and money-making advice. Simply click here to access your free copy now.

Read/Post Comments (6) | Recommend This Article (4)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 3:41 PM, SkepikI wrote:

    This is by far the most clear-eyed and compelling article I've read on the subject. AND mercifully brief on the extraneous fluff. I have been both aghast and baffled at the ability of analysts, media, supporters and politicos to throw up extraneous and meaningless observations to confuse the few facts that matter. Thank you Keith!

    I will continue watching your byline so I avoid being bamboozled by anyone.

  • Report this Comment On December 09, 2013, at 5:36 PM, TMFFishBiz wrote:

    Thanks for the nice feedback, Skepikl! I'm glad you enjoyed the article.



  • Report this Comment On December 10, 2013, at 9:09 AM, HoosierRube wrote:

    I'm happy to see an open, thoughtful appraisal on a government policy/program by a paid Fool writer.

    I was ready to dump my subscription because of the number of uneducated, head in the sand articles that seemed more like campaign talking points than anything of substance.

    Thanks! You've given me hope that not everything I read here will make me mad.

  • Report this Comment On December 10, 2013, at 2:50 PM, timc1981 wrote:

    "Whether the figure was 200 or 400 or 4 million is irrelevant. What's really critical is how many bugs remain unfixed. And that's a number we simply don't know at this point."

    As a software developer, I'll tell you that this is not a great interpretation.

    Most applications you'll ever use are not bug-free (unless they're super-tiny applications). There are several attributes about a defect developers need to consider: 1. whether the user has a way to get around the defect; 2. How often the user is likely to see the defect; 3. How adversely the user's data is affected by the defect.

    Certainly there's more things to consider about how to prioritize bug-fixing, but ultimately, the question you need to ask about your defect destruction process is: "are these bug fixes resulting in a better user experience and better functioning software?"

    Obviously these fixes are making for a better user experience. Personally, the number of bug fixes they've fixed means very little to end-users or software development professionals, because the metric by itself is useless.

    It's similarly useless to say "my application is 5 million lines long." The real question is: have you minimized the number of lines of code, while doing your best to architect in such a way that the application scales to a high number of users, interfaces with external systems appropriately, is fairly easy and intuitive to enhance, and creates an acceptable user experience?

  • Report this Comment On December 11, 2013, at 10:18 AM, gskinner75006 wrote:

    The number of young signups is meaningless if the trend remains 2+ medicare for each 1/2 paying. Not a sustainable path.

  • Report this Comment On December 11, 2013, at 1:09 PM, SkepikI wrote:

    <Obviously these fixes are making for a better user experience.>

    While I accept your point that WHICH fixes you make are more important than numbers, I have to believe when none of the websites are signing up and executing health care at near the numbers required, I am skeptical (imagine that, ha) of the statement above.

    The headline in my paper today is "Cover Oregon backlog: 30,000" the story goes on to explain the website is inoperable for health insurance applications and they are using PAPER applications which are not being processed at anywhere near the rates needed. Furthermore most of these will be unable to show they have health insurance by the deadline because they simply wont have enrollment packets....

    You might recall that Oregon was held up as an prime example of the success of state exchanges and as one that is doing it right.... we call it Coverup Oregon....

    Perhaps the improving experience with the software is that customers no longer expect anything from the website. OR, it might be from arresting the free fall of the approval ratings of the president they voted for.

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