CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- More than 7,000 West Virginians applied for health coverage in the first month of the Affordable Care Act but only 174 of them have completed the process of picking a private insurance plan in the new marketplace, according to data released Wednesday by the federal Department of Health and Human Services.
West Virginians completed 3,807 applications, representing 7,096 people, in the period from Oct. 1 to Nov. 2, according to federal officials.
Of those 7,096 people, about half -- 3,100 -- were deemed eligible for insurance through Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program.
Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield, the only private insurer offering insurance in West Virginia's marketplace, said that through Tuesday it had enrolled 198 West Virginians -- meaning that an additional 24 people chose a health plan between Nov. 2 and Nov 12.
"Well, that's not good," Perry Bryant, executive director of West Virginians for Affordable Health Care, said of the enrollment numbers. "It's really disappointing."
"But this is a long-distance run, not a sprint," he said. "This is a marathon. Hopefully, the website will be operational sooner, rather than later."
Open enrollment in the marketplace continues until March 31.
Bryant said he worries that the problems with the health insurance marketplace website, healthcare.gov, will have an adverse effect on rates in the marketplace.
The older, sicker people who need insurance will do what it takes to enroll, Bryant said, but website problems could deter younger, healthier people from enrolling in health insurance.
Having a sicker population to insure could mean higher premiums, he said.
"This has the potential to have a serious long-term impact on the marketplace," Bryant said, "and it's a real concern."
Nationwide, about 106,000 people completed the process of selecting a private insurance plan in the first month of open enrollment, far fewer than the 500,000 sign-ups the Obama administration had predicted before the website was beset by technical problems.
The 36 states, including West Virginia, where the federal government is operating the health insurance exchange have signed up only 27,000 people, compared to 79,000 for states running their own exchanges.
The Obama administration promised Wednesday that the website will be working by the end of November for the "vast majority" of users.
That means "an experience for the vast majority of consumers that is easy to use and gets them from start to finish without locking them out or timing them out," Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said in a conference call.
Sebelius urged shoppers not to wait until the end of the month to shop for insurance, saying that, despite its glitches, the website is "very much operational."
"It is running right now," she said. "Every day, people are coming through; every day people are getting enrolled."
She said customers who are not eligible for Medicaid or a tax subsidy could browse for plans on the website but then sign up directly with the insurer they choose.
Highmark officials stressed the importance of getting the website to work.
"There is an urgent need to improve the functionality of the federal marketplace as soon as possible, to ensure that consumers have enough time to enroll," Highmark said Wednesday in a news release.
Of the people who have applied in West Virginia, 4,371 -- 61 percent -- have been found eligible for some sort of financial assistance, either through Medicaid, CHIP or tax subsidies.
That's on top of the 52,000 West Virginians who pre-qualified for the state's expanded Medicaid program, which was enlarged as part of the federal health-care reform package.
The deadline to sign up for insurance that would take effect on Jan. 1, 2014, is Dec. 15. People have until the end of March to sign up for insurance for 2014 and avoid the penalty of $95, or 1 percent of taxable income, whichever is greater.
Sebelius and the HHS report pointed to enrollment numbers in Massachusetts, which enacted health-care reform in 2006, to try to put the sign-up numbers in a better light.
In its first month of open enrollment, Massachusetts had only 123 people sign up and pay for health plans, 0.3 percent of the final total. In contrast, Sebelius pointed to the 106,185 people who signed up in the first month of the Affordable Care Act as representing 1.5 percent of the final goal of 7 million enrollees.
One crucial difference is that the Massachusetts numbers included only people who had paid a first-month premium, while the ACA numbers include everyone who has completed an application and selected a plan, even if they have not yet paid.
Sebelius said some people might decide to switch plans between now and Dec. 15, when payment is due, so they would not release the number of paid enrollments until then.
West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, a longtime opponent of the Affordable Care Act, called again Wednesday for delaying the law.
"Now is the time for people on both sides of the political spectrum to come together and delay this law," Morrisey said in a news release. "Our state and nation can ill afford to keep pursuing something that has proven, on so many fronts, to not work as the president has promised."
Staff writer Lori Kersey contributed to this report.
Reach David Gutman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5119.