Four years after it passed into law, the signature social reform of Barack Obama’s presidency has finally paid dividends, with a surge of Americans registering to buy health insurance ahead of Monday’s deadline for signing up.
More than seven million people had registered to buy insurance by midnight, and the number may be substantially larger once others finish the process and state exchanges send their numbers in.
The goal of seven million enrollees, set by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, had seemed out of reach for the White House after the website was hit by technical problems at its launch in October.
“Despite several lost weeks because of problems with the website, 7.1m have now signed up to buy insurance plans,” Mr Obama said on Tuesday.
In a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden, the normally cool Mr Obama injected aggression and passion into defending the law and said he did not understand its relentless demonisation by his political opponents.
“I’ve got to admit, I don’t get it. Why are folks working so hard for people not to have health insurance?” he said.
“Many of the tall tales that have been told about this law have been debunked …Armageddon has not arrived” despite warnings by the law’s critics. “Instead, this law is helping millions of Americans, and in the coming years it will help millions more.”
On top of new enrollees, Mr Obama said three million young people had been registered on their parents’ insurance plans, while millions more are able to access care through the Medicaid programme for the poor.
Mr Obama’s political standing was badly damaged by the disastrous rollout of his health reform law, and his personal credibility was also hit, with promises he made about the policy’s operation falling short.
The seven million-plus headline number offers no benchmark for judging whether the policy designed to push millions of young and mainly low-income uninsured Americans to buy coverage will work in the longer term.
The highly politicised patchwork quilt of states that have, and have not, signed on to the policy and its various incentives, makes a national picture impossible to discern through the partisan fog of war.
A final breakdown of how many new enrollees have signed up, as opposed to the number of people who had to buy fresh insurance because their past plans were cancelled, is not yet available, nor is the number of people who are paying their premiums.
The White House has also yet to announce the demographic breakdown of enrollees, something that will be crucial in determining whether premiums will be forced to rise under the new policy.
But Mr Obama said that overall “the share of Americans with insurance is up, while the growth of healthcare costs is down”.
Although Mr Obama may struggle to regain the ground he lost after the rollout, the surge of people registering in the final, frantic weeks of enrolment has given the White House, and Democrats, a much-needed lift.
“I think it is fair to say we surpassed everyone’s expectation,” said Jay Carney, Mr Obama’s spokesman. “There have been millions and millions spent attacking this law.”
The Republicans have passed measures in the House of Representatives about 40 times to repeal or gut the Affordable Care Act, and their opposition to the policy they call Obamacare is unabated by the surge in registrations.
A spokesman for John Boehner, the Republican House speaker, said: “Every promise the president made has been broken: healthcare costs are rising, not falling. Americans are losing the doctors and plans that they like – especially seniors. Small businesses are afraid to hire new workers, hobbling our economic growth.
“That’s why we must replace this fundamentally flawed law with patient-centred solutions that will actually lower healthcare costs and help create jobs.”
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