In a press conference on Thursday afternoon, April 17, 2014 in the White House's Brady Press Briefing Room President Barack Obama announced that with the majority of numbers tallied the total number of enrollees on the federal marketplace for health insurance from his new health care law, the Affordable Care Act reached 8 million, a million more than the White House's target, and a reason to call the law a success. Obama's message at his press conference was the numbers are the final word, the debate is over, declaring in his remarks that "This thing is working." Republicans however, are not taking the president's ridicule lightly and vow to continue their opposition regardless the numbers and Obama's midterm campaign rhetoric.
Prior to fielding questions from reporters President Obama gave some remarks announcing that the law reached a benchmark of success, and in general praising the law's virtues. Obama announced "as more data comes in, we now know that the number of Americans who've signed up for private insurance in the marketplaces has grown to 8 million people -- 8 million people." However, the number final number might be less after all premium payments are made. The president lauded that many uninsured gained health insurance, but he would not provide numbers only stating that it was "millions" Obama declared; "All told, independent experts now estimate that millions of Americans who were uninsured have gained coverage this year -- with millions more to come next year and the year after."
Obama added that the 8 million includes 35 percent, who are under 35 years old, an age group that usually forgoes buying health insurance, and whom the White House was heavily targeting in their marketing of the law. According to Reuters the government needs younger, healthier Americans buying health insurance to "offset the healthcare costs for older Americans." The White House released an accompanying fact sheet entitled "Affordable Care Act by the Numbers" that detailed the statistical breakdown on the law after the end of the first open enrolment period. Younger Americans benefitted the most according to the White House with 28 percent of 18 and 34 years old, three million more under the age of 26 are now covered with their parent's plans. The White House listed that on top of the 8 million enrollees, 5 million Americans enrolled in private insurance programs from outside the Marketplace.
The White House and President Obama noted one group of Americans benefited the least those who cannot afford insurance, but their states would not expand Medicaid eligibility as CBS News explains to "everyone below 138 percent of the federal poverty line." In the states where eligibility was expanded 3 million more previously uninsured Americans gained coverage, but still 5.7 million Americans in the 24 states that did not expand eligibility will remain uninsured in 2016. The Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that the states can decide for themselves if they expand Medicaid in their state.
The president let his disappointment be known about the states' refusal to expand Medicaid, telling the press about his "frustration"; "States that have chosen not to expand Medicaid for no other reason than political spite. You've got 5 million people who could be having health insurance right now at no cost to these states -- zero cost to these states -- other than ideological reasons. They have chosen not to provide health insurance for their citizens. That's wrong. It should stop. Those folks should be able to get health insurance like everybody else."
President Obama also touted the economic benefits of the law, stating that "We've also seen signs that the Affordable Care Act is bringing economic security to more Americans." To back his claim he looked back at the old system where personal premiums were raised yearly with "double-digit increases," while employees saw their insurance raise "almost 8 percent a year." Medicare also benefits from the new law; "costs per person have nearly stopped growing" and the "Medicare Trust Fund has been extended by 10 years."
The Congressional Budget Office has also recalculated some prices on the healthcare in a new study entitled "Updated Estimates of the Effects of the Insurance Coverage Provisions of the Affordable Care Act, April 2014." The CBO found that premiums will actually be "15 percent lower than originally predicted," while the Affordable Care Act will be cheaper $5 billion less to implement, and end up cutting the deficit by $100 billion for a ten-year period. The CBO also made some enrolment estimates according to Politico; that an additional 5 million Americans have purchased from insurance companies, and that 12 million or 4 percent previously uninsured Americans are insured in 2014 half acquired their insurance through either federal or state exchanges.
For President Obama the law's success is something he can lord over the Republicans that have so vehemently opposed the law, especially beneficial in this midterm election year, where control of the Senate in the balance. Obama took advantage and readily and repeatedly ridiculed the Congressional Republicans for their position on the health care law in his remarks. Obama questioned the GOP for constantly objecting to the health care law; "As I've said before, I find it strange that the Republican position on this law is still stuck in the same place that it has always been. They still can't bring themselves to admit that the Affordable Care Act is working…. They said nobody would sign up. They were wrong about that … They were wrong to keep trying to repeal a law that is working when they have no alternative answer."
Continuing, Obama acknowledged that the law is not perfect and could use improvements, and realizes "I know every American isn't going to agree with this law." Still the president believes the focus should be on the economy; "But I think we can agree that it's well past time to move on as a country and refocus our energy on the issues that the American people are most concerned about -- and that continues to be the economy."
President Obama in his press conference criticism acted with a deaf ear to House Majority Leader's Eric Cantor's statement the day before on Wednesday, April 16, 2014 about first insulting the Republicans and then asking them to work with him. Although Cantor was specifically commenting on immigration reform, it stands for every time the president mocks the House GOP, but still wants them to do his legislative bidding. The president decided that mocking the GOP's 50 plus votes to repeal the health care law would be his tagline for the day.
Obama is spending more of his speeches, statements, and remarks in campaign mode than governing, although he recognizes that more in the Republicans actions than his own. Obama questioned the GOP's position regarding his health care law wondering to the press; "I'm still puzzled why they've made this their sole agenda item when it comes to our politics. It's curious." Then later he answered his own question, commenting; "My suspicion is that probably will not happen until after November because it seems as if this is the primary agenda item in the Republican political platform." President Obama pointed out that Republicans have made health care "a political football." However, Obama believes that "This should be something that we take for granted, that in this country you should be able to get affordable health care regardless of how wealthy you are."
The president had advice for Democrats when campaigning for the midterm elections, defend the Affordable Care Act. Obama advised; "I think that Democrats should forcefully defend and be proud…. I don't think we should apologize for it, and I don't think we should be defensive about it. I think there is a strong, good, right story to tell." He also told them to ignore the GOP's criticism about health care and focus on the economy, explaining; "If Republicans want to spend all their time talking about repealing a law that's working, that's their business. 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."
When asked about making changes to the law to improve it; Obama responded with more insults towards the Republicans, joking; "I recognize that their party is going through, you know, the stages of grief, right? Anger and denial and all that stuff. And 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?"
President Obama however, already made his own improvement to the health care law, he is changing is Health and Human Services Secretary. Current HHS head Kathleen Sebelius announced she is leaving on Thursday, April 10, Sebelius, who was in charge of the disastrous unrolling of the law in October 2013, when the federal marketplace, Healthcare.gov was riddled with technical difficulties making signing-up virtually impossible. During the rollout, Republicans repeatedly called for her to be replaced. Obama then nominated the director of the Office of Management and Budget Sylvia Mathews Burwell on Friday, April 11 at the White House.
Congressional GOP leadership was not as impressed by the President Obama's declaration of victory on health care. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell responded to the president mocking the GOP, hitting back on the problems with the law. McConnell expressed; "Noticeably absent from the president's remarks today was any mention of the millions of Americans who were deceived about what Obamacare would mean for them and their families… The president may want to silence any further debate about Obamacare, but in doing so he betrays a lack of confidence in his own policies and scant regard for those most affected by the law." Speaker of the House John Boehner's, R-OH spokesman commented; "I'm sure he would like that, given how wildly unpopular it is and how destructive it has been for millions of Americans." While House Majority Leader Cantor kept up his pressure on the president by tweeting; "I have a question. How many Obamacare enrollees were previously uninsured?" And the National Republican Congressional Committee on Twitter responded, "No, we can't" move on from health care.
For President Obama the numbers prove that the law is a success, and the "bottom line" is "Under the Affordable Care Act, the share of Americans with insurance is up, the growth of health care costs is down." President Obama concluded his prepared remarks, before taking questions gave, stating; "The point is the repeal debate is and should be over. The Affordable Care Act is working." Obama now thinks the focus should be the economy; "to repair our economy, to rebuild our middle class, and to restore our founding promise of opportunity -- not just for a few, but for all. And as President, that's exactly what I intend to keep doing as long as I'm in this office."
Obama and Democrats have chosen economic opportunity and immigration reform as their key issues in the midterm election campaign. The Democrats are on the edge where they might lose six seats and their control on the Senate. They already realize regaining control of the House of Representatives is virtually impossible at this point. Now with the successful health care numbers, the Democrats should cease running away from the law in their campaigns as they had been doing since the disastrous rollout and instead embrace its success as President Obama advised them. Princeton University professor and historian Julian Zelizer agrees telling CNN; "The party could make a collective mistake in continuing down this path. Generally, for most Democrats, they need a message from the top saying they should not be responding to Republican attacks by saying 'we agree with you.' They need to point out the numbers and say we have some successes."
Presidents often see their parties lose seats in the second midterm elections of their terms, and Obama and Democrats are trying to curb that precedent. President Obama will no doubtably continue his campaign rhetoric as the year progresses, boasting of his administration's accomplishments, focusing on economic issues important to the Democratic base and included in the Obama budget and now the success of his hallmark legislation the Affordable Care Act. Obama will also continue attacking, mocking, and ridiculing the Republicans hoping it will be enough to keep the Senate come November.
President Barack Obama's Press Conference, 4/17/14, April 17, 2014
FACT SHEET: Affordable Care Act by the Numbers, April 17, 2014
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.