How many have signed up for health care? Well, it depends

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WASHINGTON (CNN) — The glitch-plagued rollout of President Barack Obama’s signature health care law has been dogged by one big question: How many people have enrolled in an insurance plan?

The White House refuses to release the numbers, leading many to assume they are embarrassingly low. But insurance industry insiders point to another reason: Nobody knows if the numbers they do have are even accurate.

Turns out, some insurance companies say they are receiving data from the administration that is incomplete, duplicative or contradictory, making it difficult to get an accurate count of new enrollment.

So far, most of the attention has focused on people being unable to sign up for coverage through online health care exchanges. But even when customers manage to make it through the enrollment process, glitches persist.

“The administration is not wrong in saying that there’s been a lot of problems with signing up. But it’s incorrect to say that’s the only problem,” an insurance industry official said. “That’s not the only issue at hand.”

Industry officials who were contacted requested anonymity to speak candidly because of the superheated politics surrounding Obamacare.

The sign-up process works this way: A person sets up an online account, verifies an identity, applies for coverage and subsidies and, if eligible, shops and enrolls for a plan. Once completed, information is sent to the insurance plans selected by the user.

At 6 p.m. each day, the government sends the latest batch of new enrollees to insurance companies. But sometimes that data come with conflicting information, showing for instance, someone who enrolled and then canceled a plan, said an insurance industry executive. Other times data come in without a time stamp, making it difficult to track, the executive said.

Adding to the confusion, the executive said, is that people are not officially enrolled in a plan until they pay their first premiums, which are not due until December 15. That means shoppers have about two months to cancel or switch plans before making a final decision of whether or not to enroll.

An administration official did not dispute there have been problems with data sent by the government to insurers.

“We know that people are enrolling in coverage and the system works. As individual problems are raised by insurers, we work aggressively to address them,” said Joanne Peters, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services.

An HHS official said enrollment numbers will likely be released in mid-November, giving officials time to verify their accuracy.

Former Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs had harsh words for the administration, saying the October 1 rollout was “bungled badly.”

“I hope they’re working day and night to get this done, and when they get it fixed, I hope they fire some people that were in charge of making sure this thing was supposed to work,” Gibbs said Monday on MSNBC.

So far, the buzz in the insurance industry is that enrollment numbers are falling short of projections. One insurance company executive put it this way, “The numbers aren’t as bad as the doomsday people would say. But so far, they’re low and they have people worried.”

By Chris Frates