- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2014

With the number of enrollees in Obamacare exchanges surging past 8 million, President Obama took a televised victory lap Thursday, saying his signature law is an economic success and is popular enough to survive congressional Republicans’ political attacks heading into the November elections.

Mr. Obama said the economics underpinning the Affordable Care Act are beginning to work, driving down the costs of premiums for private health care plans and cutting costs to the federal government for Medicare and Obamacare subsidies. The president also said 35 percent of the people receiving coverage in the exchanges are younger than 35.

“This thing is working,” he said at a hastily called press conference designed to tout the Obamacare numbers and to explain the latest developments in Ukraine.

The 8 million enrollment number marks a major success for Mr. Obama, who scrambled six months ago after computer glitches nearly left the system stillborn. But the president nursed Obamacare with a series of delays and extensions — many of which Republicans said were illegal — and easily surpassed the initial target of 7 million sign-ups.

Beneath the enrollment numbers, though, are plenty of questions.

Although Mr. Obama touted the 35 percent of federal exchange enrollees he said were younger than 35, the administration acknowledged in a fact sheet that just 28 percent are 18 to 34 — the key demographic insurers need to sign up in order to cover the costs of older Americans with health conditions who no longer can be denied coverage. Economists said the number needed to prevent premium spikes is close to 40 percent.

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Also, it’s still not clear how many of the 8 million enrollees have paid their premiums and are actually covered, nor has the administration said how many of those who enrolled had previous coverage canceled because it didn’t meet Affordable Care Act standards.

“The President says that Republicans have not accepted Obamacare as settled law. He is right,” said House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, California Republican. “Republicans cannot and will not accept this law. Not only will Obamacare still leave millions uninsured while disrupting health care coverage for millions more, it harms jobs, cuts hours, and limits the individual liberty of each and every American.”

House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, has said his conference is working on an Obamacare alternative, but it is unclear whether a concrete plan will be put up for a vote this year. Republicans say they will take their case to voters in November, predicting big gains based on voters’ discontent with the law.

Mr. Obama said Democrats, some of whom shirked Obamacare amid its balky rollout and their own tough re-election bids, “should forcefully defend” the law.

“I don’t think we should apologize for it, and I don’t think we should be defensive about it,” he said. “I think is a strong, good, right story to tell.”

The president cautioned that the law won’t solve everything that ails the health care system and said he is open to legislative tweaks, but not until Republicans acknowledge that Obamacare is here to stay.

“It’s hard in that environment to actually get it done,” Mr. Obama said, adding that no Republican is likely to reach out to him ahead of the midterm contests.

The president did not offer data on how many enrollees lacked insurance before finding it through his law or the proportion of consumers who have paid their first premiums.

A spokeswoman for Molina Healthcare of California told The Washington Times last week that up to 20 percent of enrollees never make their initial payment, or “binder.”

“The industry is saying 10-15-20 percent,” the spokeswoman said in an email. “Once our members pay their binder they are pretty good at paying.”

Mr. Obama’s claims about the ages of enrollees was also only for those in the 36 states that are using the federal exchange marketplace. It’s unclear whether that number holds up in states that set up their own exchanges.

Just like the federal government, which gave enrollees extra time to apply if they said they at least started their applications by the March 31 deadline, many states did the same.

California, one of those states, announced Thursday that it signed up an additional 200,000 people in the extra enrollment time allowed this month.

Outside of the exchanges, 3 million young adults have been able to stay on their parents’ plans because of the law, and an additional 3 million people had signed up for Medicaid coverage through the end of February, the White House said. Enrollment in Medicaid, a government-funded health care program for the poor, will continue throughout the year.

In pointed remarks, Mr. Obama singled out states that have not expanded Medicaid to those making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level — a key pillar of his law.

He said roughly half the states did not augment their programs “for no other reason than political spite.”

“That’s wrong. It should stop,” he said. “Those folks should be able to get health insurance like everybody else.”

But his remarks did little to ease the distrust between the White House and congressional Republicans. A number of Republicans are challenging the Census Bureau, which has switched the questions it asks about insurance coverage on its annual American Community Survey.

The survey is the main way the government keeps tabs on how many people have insurance, and Republican lawmakers say changing questions now will make it impossible to compare current enrollment with pre-Obamacare numbers.

Mr. Obama’s public remarks Thursday followed a private White House meeting with health insurance executives from across the country.

In attendance were 13 industry officials, including Karen Ignagni, CEO of America’s Health Insurance Plans, a leading trade group.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden and departing Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius also were there, as was Marilyn Tavenner, the administrator of the nation’s Medicare agency and most responsible for carrying out Obamacare.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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