WASHINGTON -- More than 7 million Americans have now enrolled in private coverage on the nation's health insurance marketplaces, thanks to a wave of late sign-ups that has pushed the latest enrollment tally beyond the original goal set by the Congressional Budget Office.
A fiery President Barack Obama made the formal announcement in a Rose Garden ceremony Tuesday afternoon that served as a victory lap and pep rally for administration officials, Democratic lawmakers and civilian volunteers who labored in support of the health law, despite a flawed federal enrollment website, a skeptical public and stiff political opposition from Republicans.
While further challenges remain, both politically and logistically, the unexpected success of the marketplace enrollment period helps ensure that the president's signature legislation will usher in one of the broadest expansions of national health coverage since the Medicaid and Medicare programs were launched in 1965 and the Children's Health Insurance Program was established in 1997.
Through a combination of new marketplace insurance, coverage for adult children up to age 26 on their parents' health plans and expanded eligibility for Medicaid, an estimated 9.5 million to 9.8 million uninsured Americans likely have gained health coverage under the law, said economist Katherine Carman of the RAND Corp., a nonprofit think tank in Santa Monica, Calif. Those estimates will continue to grow, since Medicaid enrollment continues throughout the year, and many states and the federal government are extending marketplace enrollment beyond the official sign-up deadline of March 31.
"The Affordable Care Act hasn't completely fixed our long-broken health care system," Mr. Obama told the Rose Garden gathering. "But this law has made our health care system a lot better. A lot better."
"Citizens know the economic security of health insurance who didn't just a few years ago," the president said. "And that's something to be proud of. Regardless of your politics, or your feelings about me, or your feelings about this law. That's something that's good for our economy. That's good for our country. And there's no good reason to go back."
His tone and demeanor were in sharp contrast to the dejection and frustration he showed in a November White House speech when the HealthCare.gov website was broken, and he was compelled to let people with canceled health plans keep their coverage for another year. On Tuesday, the president exuded confidence about the health law's future and irritation and amazement over the constant political attacks that it continues to endure.
"I've got to admit, I don't get it," he said. "Why are folks working so hard for people not to have health insurance? Why are they so mad about the idea of folks having health insurance? Many of the tall tales that have been told about this law have been debunked. There are still no death panels. Armageddon has not arrived. Instead, this law is helping millions of Americans, and in the coming years, it will help millions more."
"I've said before, I will always work with anyone who is willing to make this law work even better," he said. "But the debate over repealing this law is over. The Affordable Care Act is here to stay."
The enrollment milestone is the payoff of a lean but resourceful operation that deployed tools, tactics and metrics honed on the campaign trail to enroll as many people as possible over the last six weeks, according to senior administration officials. The intensive outreach used local radio, Twitter, YouTube videos and celebrity endorsements from the likes of Miami Heat basketball star LeBron James and singer Katy Perry, as well as 5,000 outreach events in community centers and churches.
The hope was to reach young people, minorities and moms, with special focus on states such as Texas, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina with high rates of uninsured, and 25 cities with similarly high rates.
Efforts from health law support groups such as Enroll America played an equally important role. The nonprofit organization and its staff of 27,000 volunteers and 2,300 partner organizations had one-on-one conversations with more than 635,000 consumers and held more than 22,000 enrollment events nationwide.
The success of their efforts became clear at 10:30 a.m. EDT Tuesday, when Mr. Obama learned that marketplace enrollments had reached the 7 million mark, even though revised projections from the nonpartisan CBO had anticipated that only 6 million would sign up.
And after months of bad headlines, the new enrollment figures and growing public support for the Affordable Care Act should give a political lift to fretful congressional Democrats, who fear that the health law could be an albatross in their re-election campaigns.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., played down any discord in the ranks about the contentious law, telling reporters outside the White House: "Nobody wants it to work better than those of us who fought for it. We're not running on health care, and we're not running away from it."
Republicans were unmoved by the numbers, noting that the White House still hasn't answered questions about the enrollees, including how many have actually paid their premiums. House Republicans said the figures don't affect the pledge earlier this week of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to continue trying to repeal the law.
And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said: "All across the country, our constituents are having an unpleasant interaction with Obamacare. Whether they can sign up for a policy or not, they are discovering, of course, higher premiums, a higher deductible. Many of them are losing their jobs, and so it really is a catastrophe for the country, both for the health care providers and the consumers."