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Survey confirms gains in health care sign-ups

This March 31 photo shows applicants lining up for a health care enrollment event in Calif. A recent Gallup poll shows that access to health care is indeed expanding. (The Associated Press)
This March 31 photo shows applicants lining up for a health care enrollment event in Calif. A recent Gallup poll shows that access to health care is indeed expanding. (The Associated Press)
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WASHINGTON – A growing share of Americans got health insurance as sign-up season for President Barack Obama’s health care law came to a close last month, a major survey released Monday has found.

The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index provides independent validation for White House claims that the law is expanding access, particularly for working people with no coverage on the job. But the improvement doesn’t appear as large as some of the numbers claimed by the law’s supporters.

Gallup found that the share of adults without health insurance shrank from 17.1 percent at the end of last year to 15.6 percent for the first three months of 2014. The decline of 1.5 percentage points would translate roughly to more than 3.5 million people gaining coverage.

“The Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as ‘Obamacare,’ appears to be accomplishing its goal of increasing the percentage of Americans with health insurance,” said Gallup’s analysis of the findings.

The survey is important because it combines the quick turnaround of media polls with extensive outreach usually seen in government research. Gallup interviewed more than 43,500 adults, or more than 40 times the number in a typical national media poll.

Coming a week after the close of the health care law’s first enrollment season, Gallup’s numbers suggest a more modest impact on coverage than statistics cited by the Obama administration.

The administration says more than 7 million have signed up for subsidized private plans through new insurance markets. Additionally, 3 million previously uninsured people gained coverage through the law’s Medicaid expansion.

Millions more remain potentially eligible for marketplace coverage under various extensions issued by the administration. White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said this weekend on CBS that 200,000 people who had started applications but weren’t able to finish by the deadline got signed up later in the week.

However, the administration’s numbers are not comparable with Gallup’s.

The White House figure of 7 million-plus insurance exchange sign-ups includes insured people who switched their previous coverage, as well as people who have not paid their first month’s premium and who would therefore still be uninsured.

Also, Gallup is counting just adults, while the administration figures include children as well.

It may take much of the rest of the year to get a true bottom line of the health care law’s impact on coverage.

Still, Gallup’s numbers do show an improving trend. The share of Americans without coverage is at its lowest since late 2008, before Obama took office, the survey found.

“This survey and other independent analyses highlight a historic expansion in coverage,” said Aaron Albright, a spokesman for the Health and Human Services department.

The survey also speaks to concerns about the consequences from last fall’s wave of insurance cancellations. Gallup’s data suggest most of the people whose existing policies did not measure up under the law were able to get new coverage, or took advantage of exceptions belatedly issued by the White House.

Gallup found the biggest insurance gains were among lower-income people and among African-Americans.

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