Obama Says 8 Million Signed Up for Coverage Under Health Law

Apr 18, 2014 12:00 am ET

April 18 (Bloomberg) -- Eight million people signed up for Obamacare in the law’s first year, President Barack Obama said, declaring that Republicans should stop trying to repeal the measure and work to improve it instead.

About 35 percent of enrollees in the federal insurance exchanges are younger than 35, Obama said. That’s a four percentage-point rise since March 1, indicating a surge of sign- ups by young adults and children. Insurers want as many healthy customers as possible to balance the risk and expense of covering older and sicker Americans.

Obama’s announcement at the White House came two days after enrollment closed for the year under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Earlier, he met with state insurance commissioners and executives from companies including WellPoint Inc. and HealthNet Inc. to discuss preparations for 2015 signups, which begin Nov. 15.

“We now know for a fact that repealing the Affordable Care Act would increase the deficit, raise premiums for millions of Americans and take away insurance from millions more,” Obama said in a news conference. “We’ve got a sizeable part of the U.S. population now that are -- for the first time, in many cases -- in the position to enjoy the financial security of health insurance.”

The sign-up totals exceed by 1 million estimates by the Congressional Budget Office before the exchange was crippled for two months by computer errors. The CBO scaled back its projection to 6 million in February.

The country must “move on” from the “endless, fruitless” attempts by Republicans to repeal the law, Obama said. “They still can’t bring themselves to admit that the Affordable Care Act is working.”

Republican Repeal

Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Republican leader who is seeking to take control of the chamber after the November congressional elections, immediately reiterated his party’s intent to repeal the law.

“Countless Americans have unexpectedly been forced out of the plans they had and liked, are now shouldering dramatically higher premiums, and can no longer use the doctors and hospitals they choose,” he said in an e-mail from a spokesman.

While Republicans who control the House of Representatives have voted 50 times since 2011 to repeal all or part of Obamacare, they have never voted on alternative legislation to expand U.S. insurance coverage.

Obama said he would welcome discussion with Republicans on “things that need to be improved, that need to be tweaked.” Republicans, though, are “going through the stages of grief,” he said. “We’re not at acceptance yet.”

Premium Increases

The rise in the percentage of younger enrollees may help ameliorate large premium increases in 2015, said Larry Levitt, a senior vice president at the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation of Menlo Park, California.

“It’s good news for insurer finances, particularly if lots of healthy people signed up along with younger folks,” Levitt wrote in an e-mail.

The increase in under-35 enrollment was reported earlier by state insurance commissioners after they met with Obama. The commissioners met with Obama and aides that included outgoing health secretary Kathleen Sebelius for more than an hour.

North Dakota insurance commissioner Adam Hamm, a Republican, cautioned that higher youth enrollment doesn’t guarantee insurers won’t try to raise rates.

“If it’s folks under the age of 35 who are still sick or are incurring a lot of claims, that’s going to add to the mix in terms of what the rates need to be for those products,” Hamm said. “The more important demographic is what’s the health of folks enrolling in these products.”

States Criticized

Obama concluded his remarks by criticizing states that have refused to expand their Medicaid programs under the health law because of “ideological reasons.”

“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,” Obama said, holding up his fingers in the shape of a zero. “That’s wrong. It should stop.”

While the federal government provides full financing for the Medicaid expansion until 2017, Republican governors that have declined the money say their states wouldn’t be able to afford their share of the cost in later years, a maximum of 10 percent.

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--With assistance from Roger Runningen in Washington.