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."