Enrollment surge should end debate over Obamacare, Obama says

Obamacare has enrolled 8 million Americans, and early data suggest it has a good mix of young people. But President Obama knows Republicans aren't remotely ready to give up the fight yet.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
President Obama speaks in the briefing room of the White House in Washington Thursday.

President Obama argued Thursday that new enrollment numbers should effectively end the highly partisan debate over the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Eight million people have now signed up for health coverage on government-run exchanges. That’s 1 million more than the Obama administration’s original target of 7 million enrollees for the first year of the mandate for individuals to carry insurance.

Some 35 percent of enrollees in the federal marketplace are under age 35, Mr. Obama added, suggesting that enough young, healthy people signed up to offset the cost of insuring older and less healthy people, who draw more on insurance.   

The Obama administration’s early targets included a goal of 38.5 percent of enrollees between the ages of 18 and 34. That number came in at 28 percent, the White House said on Thursday.

Experts say it’s still too soon to say how the influx of new enrollees under the ACA will affect the insurance market in the future. Insurers are still finding out who their new customers are, and most important, their health status. It’s also still not clear how many of those who bought insurance on the government exchanges had been previously uninsured. The situation could also look different in different states depending on how enrollment went there.

Still, addressing reporters in the White House briefing room Thursday, Obama took a bit of a victory lap in announcing the new numbers. Now, Obama says, it’s time for Republicans to give up their quest to repeal the ACA.

“The point is, the repeal debate is and should be over,” Obama said. “The Affordable Care Act is working, and I know the American people don't want us spending the next 2-1/2 years refighting the settled political battles of the last five years.”

Obama’s frustration over the Republican-led House’s 50-plus votes to gut Obamacare was palpable. And he made clear that he takes the GOP resistance to the law personally. He said he would like Congress to consider changes to the law to make it work better but doubted Republicans were ready for that.

“I don't think there's been any hesitation on our part to consider ideas that would actually improve the legislation,” Obama said. “The challenge we have is, is that if you have certain members in the Republican Party whose view is making it work better is a concession to me, then it's hard in that environment to actually get it done.”

The president said he saw a Republican Party going through the stages of grief – “anger and denial and all that stuff.”

“We're not at acceptance yet, but at some point, my assumption is, is that there will be an interest to figure out how do we make this work in the best way possible,” he said.

Looking ahead to next year, Obama said he expects premiums to rise, but at a lower rate than originally expected. In the decade before the ACA, he said, employer-based insurance rose almost 8 percent a year. Last year, it grew at half that rate.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said Monday that Obamacare premiums will rise slightly in 2015, and then go up on average 6 percent a year from 2016 to 2024. The CBO projected that in 2016, premiums will be 15 percent lower than originally forecast in 2009.

Republicans have made clear they are going to beat up Democrats over Obamacare in the midterm election campaign. But Obama called on Democrats to “forcefully defend and be proud of the law,” which he said has helped people like a woman he met Wednesday in Pennsylvania who was diagnosed with breast cancer and who now has health coverage.

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

Obama also ran through other categories of people who now have coverage, beyond the 8 million who enrolled via the government exchanges: Three million young adults are now covered on their parents’ insurance. Three million more people now have coverage through the expansion of Medicaid. Another 5 million people have signed up in the private market for individual coverage outside the exchanges.

The president also expressed frustration over states that opted not to expand eligibility for Medicaid, saying they did that “for no other reason than political spite.” He said if all states had chosen to expand Medicaid, an additional 5 million people would have coverage.

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