Obama Says Health-Insurance Enrollees Reach Eight Million

WASHINGTON—President Barack Obama said Thursday that eight million people had picked health-insurance plans through the Affordable Care Act, a number that significantly outstripped initial projections and emboldened him to step up criticism of Republicans seeking to repeal the law.

The eight million sign-ups go beyond earlier projections by the Congressional Budget Office that six or seven million people would enroll through the exchanges in 2014. Mr. Obama pointed to the number to declare the law a success and that Republicans should stop trying to overturn it.

“The point is, the repeal debate is and should be over,” the president said. “The Affordable Care Act is working and I know the American people don’t want us spending the next 2½ years refighting the settled political battles of the last five years.”

Some 35% of those who signed up through the federal health-insurance exchange were in the coveted under-35 demographic, Mr. Obama said. The participation of younger, relatively healthy people is needed to balance out the cost of medical claims from older and sicker ones.

The announcement contained few other new details about enrollment. Republicans quickly pointed to missing information—such as the number of people who had actually gained coverage after being uninsured, as opposed to those replacing an existing policy—to suggest the figures could be overblown as a measure of success.

Democrats up for re-election in the fall have been bracing for a renewed debate around the law as the Senate prepares to hold confirmation hearings for a successor to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, whose resignation was announced last week.

Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D., N.H.), who has come under strong criticism from Republicans for supporting the law and is in a tough race for re-election, called the development great news. She has made her frustrations with the law known to the Obama administration, but she said Thursday she has also heard from constituents in both parties who have been helped by the law. “The Affordable Care Act still has challenges, but today’s news is clearly a giant step forward,” she said in a statement.

Polls regularly show that while opinion remains sharply divided over the law and more people dislike it than like it, a majority of Americans don’t want it repealed. The White House has seized on that finding, and on Thursday Mr. Obama also suggested that the final enrollment numbers could provide Democrats with some measure of political cover amid a likely barrage of election-year attacks.

“If Republicans want to spend all their time talking about repealing a law that’s working, that’s their business,” Mr. Obama said. “I think what Democrats should do is not be defensive, but we need to move on and focus on the things that are really important to the American people right now.”

GOP lawmakers continued to emphasize information not contained in the numbers, including how many people have paid their first month’s premium, the final step in enrolling for insurance.

“How many of those who have signed up were among the millions who had their plans canceled? How many were already insured but forced to sign up for an Obamacare plan?” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.). “This law promised to insure the uninsured, let those who liked their insurance keep it, and lower the cost of insurance—let’s talk about what the law was supposed to do instead of how many millions of people the president has so far forced into Obamacare.”

The new total reflects people who had signed up through April 15 through the federal and state exchanges, the last date on which most Americans were allowed to finish applications. The official enrollment deadline had been March 31, but the federal exchanges gave people who tried to sign up but got stuck in long lines or computer overloads an additional 15 days to finish their applications. Most states offered similar extensions.

Bringing the uninsured into the health system was a key promise in Mr. Obama’s push for the law. Federal officials said earlier that only insurers know how many people have paid their first month’s premium, and that they aren’t collecting information on what proportion of enrollees had been uninsured.

The president’s announcement didn’t include state-by-state information about enrollment, which will be key to determining premiums for 2015 and beyond since each state’s insurance market is different and rates are based on the makeup of people who sign up within each.

White House officials said Thursday that 28% of the enrollees in the federally run exchanges serving 36 states are in the 18-34 demographic. Some 7% are children covered by family plans. The administration didn’t release demographic information for the 14 states running their own exchanges.

Insurance officials previously said 80% to 85% of enrollees paid the first month’s premium, a proportion that would suggest the administration will ultimately hit enrollment targets for the exchanges for 2014 even if some people drop out or have picked more than one plan and are overrepresented in the numbers, especially since some people who have a change in their life circumstances such as a divorce or job loss are still allowed to sign up after March 31.

The figures represent a slight increase in young people compared with the previous five months. The administration said earlier that through Feb. 28, about 4.2 million people were covered by plans picked via the federal and state-run exchanges. Of those, 25% were 18 to 34, and 6% were children covered by family plans.

The mix of younger people buying coverage is considered by health plans to be crucial in determining future insurance prices. Under the law, insurers no longer can charge premiums based on health histories, and are restricted in how much more they can charge older consumers.

Mr. Obama offered a muted warning about premiums next year, saying he expected them to rise, though he also said they had done so before the law was passed because of the increase in health costs.

The president also criticized states that opted not to expand their Medicaid programs to include all adults making around the poverty line, a decision made available to them after the Supreme Court ruled in June 2012 that they couldn’t be required to participate in that part of the health law.

Governors and legislators in 24 states, most of whom are Republicans, say they don’t believe state budgets or Washington can withstand the additional costs of expanding Medicaid.

Mr. Obama on Thursday characterized the decision as one motivated by “political spite.”

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

*Modified from a WSJ.com article

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