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State Obamacare markets attract tens of thousands of customers

By Lewis Krauskopf and Deena Beasley

(Reuters) - Tens of thousands of uninsured people have begun to sign up for health coverage through online Obamacare private insurance marketplaces in California and New York, officials said on Tuesday, while problems still plagued the federal online system.

California and New York are two of the biggest markets for signing up millions of uninsured Americans under President Barack Obama's healthcare law. State officials said the data they provided on Tuesday was an early indicator of strong demand for new insurance plans that will take effect in 2014.

The disclosures from New York and California come as Republican opponents of Obama's healthcare reform press the administration for details of how enrollment is progressing. The federal government has been working to fix both capacity and software issues that have prevented access to the Healthcare.gov website since the new exchanges launched on October 1.

"It started a little rockier than we'd like. It's better today than it was yesterday and it will keep getting better," U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in an interview with comedian Jon Stewart on cable TV's The Daily Show.

The Covered California exchange said it approved more than 16,000 applications for health insurance that would cover over 28,000 state residents, despite early glitches since the website launched. The number includes people deemed eligible for the state's Medicaid program for the poor. Another 27,000 applications are still being processed. The exchange did not say how many of those people had selected new health plans, but expects to make that data available beginning in mid-November.

"We've started strong," said Covered California Executive Director Peter Lee. "The amount of interest and number of applications we've received in the first week underscores the demand among Californians for quality, affordable healthcare."

New York reported that applications that would cover more than 40,000 people had been completed, including determining those who would be eligible for Medicaid and those who could then choose their private health plans.

"What the 40,000 people represent to me is first that there is vast interest in applying for coverage through our state marketplace, and our system is processing applications quickly and efficiently," Donna Frescatore, executive director of the NY State of Health exchange, said in an interview.

Data provided by other states has varied in terms of whether the numbers refer to completed enrollments or applications processed and whether they detail how many people have signed up for Medicaid or private insurance. A Reuters tally of data from eight additional states shows more than 25,000 processed applications or enrollments, with at least three-quarters of them deemed eligible for Medicaid.

HHS WORKS ON FIXES

The Department of Health and Human Services said Healthcare.gov has attracted nearly 9 million visitors since the start of enrollment, but has not given any details on how many applications for insurance or enrollments have been processed.

Republican members of the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee in an October 8 letter to Sebelius requested state-by-state enrollment data for the federally-run exchanges by October 18.

HHS says it will provide regular enrollment updates beginning in mid-November, after it has verified state figures and cross-checked data for all 50 states with health insurance numbers.

Obamacare advocates said they expect the federal exchange site should show significant improvement later this week as information technology contractors add server capacity to the system to handle unexpectedly large volumes of online traffic and address software problems.

"I believe they are likely to get fixed in the next few days. This is a temporary phenomenon," said Ron Pollack of the advocacy group Families USA, who says he is in touch with administration officials about the rollout at least twice a day.

Meanwhile, nonprofit groups offering in-person assistance to potential beneficiaries said they were advising uninsured people to hold off for another week or begin enrollment with paper applications that can take weeks to process and assuring people eager of coverage that there is still plenty of time to meet a December 15 enrollment deadline for coverage that begins January 1.

"All of our phones are ringing off the hook, even well beyond regular business hours," said Dizzy Warren of Michigan Consumers for Healthcare.

Independent experts say the administration has until November to iron out the glitches to Healthcare.gov, when a bigger influx of potential customers is expected. The 14 states running their own healthcare exchanges continue to have sporadic technical problems, including verifying consumer identities and calculating government subsidies.

Minnesota's MNSure exchange said its account creation process was disrupted by a fix applied to federal data systems over the weekend, an issue it expects to be addressed later on Tuesday.

The Cover Oregon exchange said it was now directing residents to fill out paper applications for insurance rather than signing up online through assistors or insurance brokers, citing problems determining eligibility for subsidies.

"There are a lot of complex family situations we deal with and we want to be sure that for all these situations we are properly determining eligibility," said spokeswoman Ariane Holm.

(Reporting by Lewis Krauskopf and Curtis Skinner in New York, Deena Beasley in Los Angeles. Writing by David Morgan in Washington, Editing by Michele Gershberg and Andrew Hay)

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