By Elise Viebeck and Justin Sink - 04/17/14 03:43 PM EDT
A defiant President Obama on Thursday announced that 8 million people have enrolled in ObamaCare plans while exhorting Democrats to “be proud” of what they’ve achieved.
Holding an unscheduled press conference at the White House, Obama took a victory lap on the healthcare law and assailed Republicans as refusing "to admit that the Affordable Care Act is working."
"They said nobody would sign up. They were wrong about that. They said it would be unaffordable for the country. They were wrong about that," Obama said.
"We're helping because of something we did," Obama said. "I don't think we should apologize for it, and I don't think we should be defensive about it. I think is a strong, good, right story to tell."
He blasted Republican governors who have refused to take an expansion of Medicaid under ObamaCare, which he said has left millions of low-income Americans without affordable health care options. He said the governors are standing in the way of coverage out of "political spite."
"That's wrong," Obama said. "It should stop. Those folks should be able to get health insurance like everybody else."
But Obama stopped short of advocating that Democrats run on the healthcare law in the midterm elections. He said lawmakers "need to move on and focus on the things that are really important to the American people right now," principally the economy and jobs.
Obama’s announcement came after a meeting at the White House with state insurance regulators and insurance company executives, some of whom have been working for months to get the new federal system up and running.
Republicans, who are making ObamaCare a central part of their 2014 campaign efforts, dismissed Thursday's enrollment numbers as inflated and said the administration is obscuring the “havoc” wreaked by ObamaCare.
“Beyond refusing to disclose the number of people who’ve actually enrolled by paying premiums, the president ignores the havoc that this law has wreaked on private plans that people already had and liked," said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). "Surveys have consistently shown that the overwhelming majority of those who signed up already had insurance. Had this law not led to millions of Americans receiving cancelation notices, many would not have had to sign up for this government-run program.
“What America really needs is a health care system that is more affordable, more accessible, and of the highest quality, and that’s what House Republicans are working toward.”
Republicans also argued that the president glossed over the number of ObamaCare enrollees who saw their plans canceled thanks to the law’s new requirements.
"I have a question ... how many ObamaCare enrollees were previously uninsured?" Cantor tweeted Thursday.
Obama said only that, "independent experts now estimate that millions of Americans who were uninsured have gained coverage this year."
A Gallup poll released earlier this week suggested that 2.1 percent of the U.S. population did not have health insurance last year, but had obtained it through the ObamaCare exchanges. If accurate, that would suggest more than 6.5 million Americans who were not previously insured had gotten coverage through the Affordable Care Act, although most insurance experts predict the actual figure is lower than that.
While the final enrollment total represents a success for the administration, it remains to be seen whether the program will live up to its promises.
The White House did not release state-by-state figures for the ObamaCare exchanges, which are vital to understanding how each marketplace will fare next year. States with fewer enrollments, especially from healthy people, are generally more likely to see premiums spike in 2015.
It’s also unclear how many of the enrollees are healthy, which is critical for ensuring a “balanced pool” that keeps costs low.
Adults between ages 18 and 34 accounted for 28 percent of the total enrollments, the White House said. While that falls short of the four-in-10 minimum that some experts see as ideal, the White House argued the enrollment mix will not damage the system because the Massachusetts health reform law saw the same percentage in its first year.
While the political fight over the law is only beginning, the final enrollment numbers come as a relief to the administration, which was thrown into crisis last fall with the botched rollout of HealthCare.gov.
The numbers could also buoy Democrats, who are looking to go on offense as they fight to save their Senate majority.
The Democratic National Committee launched a new fundraising pitch ahead of Obama’s announcement, noting a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimate that 12 million more people have health insurance thanks to the law.
That total could rise in the coming weeks, as a handful of marketplaces around the country are still accepting new customers.
Still, the number of sign-ups will become less relevant except as a sign of the marketplaces' basic functionality, since the system is not static. People will come in and out of the exchanges during the year based on events like gaining or losing a job, and some will never pay their first premium, meaning their coverage is never activated.
Obama said it is “well past time” for Washington to move on from the healthcare debate.
“I know every American isn't going to agree with this law, 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.”
— This story was last updated at 6:09 p.m.