By Elise Viebeck and Justin Sink - 04/01/14 08:25 PM EDT
The Obama administration on Tuesday celebrated its announcement that 7.1 million people had enrolled in health insurance through ObamaCare.
The surprising final number exceeded an important benchmark and represented a significant achievement for the administration after a troubled rollout of the law handed midterm election-year momentum to Republicans.
“I don’t get it,” Obama said. “Why are folks working so hard for people not to have health insurance? Why are they so mad about folks having health insurance?"
“There are still no death panels. Armageddon has not arrived. Instead this law is helping millions of Americans,” he said.
Republicans warned that Obama would be eating his words in November.
“President Barack Obama is taking a premature victory lap for his signature healthcare law,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said.
“If the president feels so good about the so-called success of his healthcare law, then we encourage him to campaign with Mary Landrieu, Mark Pryor and all the other Senate Democrats who unanimously voted for ObamaCare,” Priebus added, referring to Democratic senators in Louisiana and Arkansas in difficult reelection races this year.
The 7.1 million figure covers people who have completed applications for healthcare plans on the federal or state exchanges.
It is possible the number will grow because the administration is allowing people who began an application before Monday to complete it in the month of April.
But there are many unanswered questions about the current enrollees.
It is unclear how many lacked health insurance in the past.
It is also unclear how many have made an initial premium payment, though Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, quoting insurance industry officials, said an estimated 80–90 percent have done so.
The administration has yet to release figures on the average age of the enrollees, a factor that is critical to the exchanges’ success.
Experts believe that between 25 percent and 40 percent of enrollees need to be between the ages of 18 and 34 to balance out sicker and older people on the marketplaces. Without such a balance, premiums could rise fast in some states.
The administration last reported that roughly 1 in 4 enrollees nationwide were younger people. Insurers have said this proportion was increasing, but it is unclear whether the age balance will be strong enough state by state to ensure stable premium prices.
Nonetheless, the enrollment of 7.1 million people was a clear triumph for the administration, given the rollout’s botched debut.
The Congressional Budget Office predicted that 7 million people would enroll in ObamaCare’s first year, and it became a benchmark of success for the law that seemed impossible to reach after a rocky start.
HealthCare.gov crashed upon its Oct. 1 start, and several state-based exchanges also suffered technical difficulties.
Subsequent investigations revealed deep-seated technical issues on HealthCare.gov, along with pronounced mismanagement by the administration and its contractors.
At the end of November, only 365,000 people had signed up on the exchanges, and the administration later lowered its overall expectation for enrollment, saying only 6 million would likely sign up.
The administration also aggressively pushed back on reports that it was hoping for 7 million rather than 6 million.
The problems with the rollout produced a near panic among congressional Democrats. Fearing a midterm debacle, lawmakers and aides aired their frustrations with the White House in the press.
Independent political experts call Republicans the slight favorites to win a Senate majority this fall. On Tuesday, Democrats signaled hope that the ObamaCare news would shift momentum.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Tuesday called the 7.1 million figure “heartwarming for those of us who worked so hard” to ensure that the controversial legislation passed through Congress.
She refused to speculate about the political implications, however.
“We’re not running on healthcare, but we’re not running away from it,” Pelosi said.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said those who voted for the legislation should be “proud of” their votes.
He also took a shot at Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who on Monday said the law should be repealed.
“Amazingly, just this week the Speaker recommitted Republicans to their strategy of repealing the law,” Carney said.
“I hope you’ll ask the Speaker this: How will that effort to repeal the law ensure that Americans have access to the same quality healthcare that members of Congress have? I’d love to hear the answer.”
Boehner spokesman Michael Steel derided the White House’s “victory lap” and continued to argue for repealing the law.
“Every promise the president made has been broken,” he said. “That’s why we must replace this fundamentally flawed law with patient-centered solutions that will actually lower healthcare costs and help create jobs.”
Democratic strategist Doug Thornell predicted the enrollment total would help vulnerable Democrats in the midterm elections by boosting turnout.
“If we had not hit 6 or 7 million, it would’ve been very problematic for the party heading into the elections,” he said.
“It reminds me of when the Supreme Court upheld the law and said it was constitutional. That was a major defeat for Republicans. … This feeling reminds me a lot of that euphoria.”
Jonathan Easley contributed.