What a difference three months make. The Barack Obama who wore “ACA” like scarlet letters for the last quarter of 2013 sounded like a changed man during Thursday’s press conference on the Affordable Care Act. Rather than re-apologizing for the troubled launch of healthcare.gov, he reveled in numbers well-chosen to undermine the GOP’s 2014 campaign plans.
The first one was 8 million. That’s the number of people who have found private coverage through the new insurance exchanges since October. Only 4.2 million people had signed up by the end of February, and supporters worried that the exchanges would fall short of the 6 million needed to preserve a modicum of credibility. By March 31, enrollment had surged to 7.5 million, and the new figure turns the homerun into a grand slam.
And contrary to the Right’s predictions, the young adults needed to stabilize the risk pool and keep costs down didn’t boycott the call to protect themselves. Fully 35% of the new enrollees are under 35, according to the new figures.
Adding injury to insult for his critics, the president trotted out a series of recent analyses showing that private insurance rates are rising at half the pre-Obamacare pace, that Medicare spending is essentially steady, that the Medicare trust fund is gaining life expectancy, and that the expansion of health care will cost significantly less than expected over the coming decade.
“The bottom line is that the share of Americans with health insurance is up,” he said. “Cost growth is down. People with coverage have more protection. And people are no longer being discriminated against for having pre-existing conditions or being women. This thing is working.”
He admitted that the health care law, like any act of such scale, still needed a lot of fine tuning—and he urged Republicans to stop pouting and pitch in. “I’ve always said that in any big piece of legislation there will be need to improve it over time,” he said. “But you have certain Republicans who think that making the law better is a concession to me. I recognize that their party is going through the stages of grief—anger, denial, all that stuff. We’re not at acceptance yet.”
By focusing so tightly on paralyzing the president, congressional Republicans have left themselves without many accomplishments to run on. But as affordable health care seeps deeper into American life, the crusade to kill it is becoming an ever-riskier venture.
“Millions of people are finally in a position to enjoy the financial security that health insurance brings,” the president sad. “That’s not an abstraction. It can mean that an illness won’t cost you your home, your business and your parents’ home.”
Democrats, still traumatized by last fall’s embarrassments, have been slow to shout the good news, but Obama’s remarks offered them a script for the campaign season. “I want to talk about our plans for putting people back to work, building an economy that innovates, training people for the jobs that are out there now,” he said. “These endless, fruitless repeal efforts come at a cost. Those 50 repeal votes could have been devoted to infrastructure, innovation, minimum wage, unemployment insurance. The American people don’t want us to spend the next two years refighting the battles of the last five.”
The GOP reaction was true to form. “The White House continues to obscure the full impact of Obamacare,” a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner shot back at the president. “Beyond refusing to disclose the number of people who’ve actually enrolled by paying premiums, the president ignores the havoc that this law has wreaked on private plans that people already had and liked.”
There’s a sliver of truth in his statement. By setting higher standards for health plans, the Affordable Care Act forced insurers to cancel some of the low-value policies once sold on the individual market. Fewer than 500,000 people were affected, and the administration has created new exemptions to appease those who wanted to keep their old plans. Will their anger fuel a Republican resurgence next fall? Your guess.