Does This Latest Figure Mean Obamacare Is in Serious Trouble?
I seem to find myself in the minority on nearly everything. Perhaps it's because I'm a contrarian investor or maybe it's my love for the underdog (you sort of need to have strong skin if you're a Detroit Lions fan), but I find myself among the very, very few Americans who have had little trouble accessing my state's health exchange. In fact, I was able to sign up for health insurance without any technical difficulties.
For many Americans, that hasn't been the case. For the past 11 days since the launch of Healthcare.gov, the federally run health exchange, and the 14 state-run health exchanges (of which my home state is one), it's been story after story of servers crashing due to high volume and the information technology behind the exchanges being unable to cope with the complexity of some people's situations.
The Department of Health and Human Services has been pretty low-key about sign-ups so far, perhaps implying that they've been much lower than expected because of these glitches. Exactly how much lower you wonder? A recent study from The Associated Press and market research agency GfK Group sought to find out.
Obamacare's no good, very bad news
The two agencies earlier this week released a study asking 1,227 adults from around the U.S. what their opinion was of the health exchanges since they opened and whether or not someone in their household had tried to sign up for health insurance via the exchanges since they opened.
Here were their responses.
Based on what you have seen or heard so far, would you say that the opening of these health insurance markets has gone:
Not too/not well at all
Don't know enough to say
Refused to answer
Since the health insurance market in your state began, have you or has anyone in your household tried to sign up for health insurance coverage through this market?
The above figures are telling from a number of different perspectives. To begin with, inclusive of the refused-to-answer crowd, 73% of Americans have an unfavorable or non-positive view of the exchanges thus far. Perhaps it's a bit unfair to lump in the "Don't know enough to say" crowd, but clearly if they don't know enough, they aren't likely to tell their friends and family how well it worked and persuade them to sign up by word of mouth.
Another telling figure is the sheer number of people who admitted to trying to sign up for health insurance -- just 7%!
Understandably, we wouldn't expect this figure to be enormously high because, as of 2011 according to Gallup, 44.6% of Americans received health insurance through their employer. But this has the potential to become a serious problem if people don't start signing up for health coverage soon.
As Gallup's poll last year also demonstrated, employer-based insurance has been on a steady decline since 2008 when it totaled 49.2% of surveyed Americans. I would strongly anticipate that employer-based coverage is only going to drop further when we see 2013's figures due to the coming implementation of the employer mandate as outlined in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which you probably know better as Obamacare. Under that mandate, companies with 50 or more full-time employees will be required to provide health insurance options for those workers or face stiff penalties. In response, hours and coverage have been cut by numerous high-profile employers.
One Wendy's franchisee, for instance, cut back hours for hundreds of employees in order to avoid having to provide health insurance coverage. Movie theater chain Regal Entertainment pulled a similar maneuver, cutting thousands of workers' hours in order to reduce any chance of being liable for health care penalties. These may seem like callous acts, but they're needed in order for these companies to keep their prices and wages where they are now.
The end result should be an increasing number of Americans seeking insurance on the individual markets. This initial figure of just 7%, therefore, is a brutally low figure, especially considering that only 1-in-4 people are somewhat satisfied or very satisfied with the performance of the exchanges thus far.
How this could impact your investments
I know I've been harping on this for a while, but insurers and hospitals are the two sectors that run the greatest risk of share price depreciation over the near term if these glitches continue.
I consider hospitals like Tenet Healthcare to be particularly at risk since they're counting on numerous uninsured people to enroll in order to reduce their burden going forward of uncollected revenue. To add, Tenet also operates hospitals in 10 states, of which nine have decided thus far not to expand their Medicaid program. This could mean a lesser reduction in doubtful provisions for Tenet compared to the rest of the hospital sector.
Insurers obviously have a lot of lofty expectations baked in as well. WellPoint is one I've previously decried that could struggle, but it also appears to be a possible beneficiary relative to its peers since it operates in many of the state-run health exchanges, which are operating far-and-away better than the federally run exchanges thus far. We're still very early in the enrollment process, but current quarter estimates for insurers are likely to come down significantly if these glitches continue.
This is also a knock against the reliability of those who undertook the build-out of the federally run IT architecture. No one was expecting anything to be glitch-free by any means, but the unrealistic expectations of investors could certainly knock these software developers off their high horse. Take CGI Group as a great example. The company is the primary contractor behind the Healthcare.gov website. Although CGI Group's been fully paid for the job and isn't likely to see any material impact to its earnings in the upcoming quarter, future orders for the company could be called into question as other potential customers shy away following the Obamacare exchange debacle.
Stay calm and prosper
Ultimately, though, investors just need to exercise patience with these investments as many are still poised to benefit over the long run. No major health overhaul has ever been implemented without a fair number of glitches arising, so we as investors need to do our best not to let our emotions get the best of us.
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The article Does This Latest Figure Mean Obamacare Is in Serious Trouble? originally appeared on Fool.com.Fool contributor Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.The Motley Fool owns shares of, and recommends WellPoint. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.
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