What were the takeaway headlines concerning this week’s news about the Affordable Care Act? That more than 7 million Americans signed up for health insurance, beating the estimate made by the Congressional Budget Office for the legislation’s first major deadline? Or the website was back to frustrating its potential customers?
The recurrence of website delays was certainly more fodder for Republican critics, but to the extent that sign-up delays were triggered by high demand the bigger news is the goal was reached and exceeded.
High demand was not what these critics had predicted. Indeed, their narrative from the beginning has been that Americans hate so-called Obamacare. How does that square with millions of people signing up? It doesn’t.
Of course, some skepticism about the 7.1 million figure is justified. Not enough is known about the age and circumstances of the Americans who began signing up by the deadline and whether they will complete the process and pay up. But it is clear that the late surge has nevertheless been strong — contrary to all expectations, including those of the CBO and its revised estimate of 6 million.
In addition to those logging on in the government marketplace, millions more are believed to have sought insurance through private companies or Medicaid. One estimate from the nonpartisan RAND Corp. puts the number of newly insured people under the law at 9.5 million to 9.8 million.
Although President Barack Obama understandably treated the news as a victory and took the opportunity to stress the virtues of the law and wonder about the motives of its detractors, this is only one hurdle cleared on a long obstacle course. More open enrollment periods are ahead (the next for 2015 begins on Nov. 15 this year). The administration also faces practical decisions on implementation, and insurance rates are still in flux. These factors could yet sink the law, given the Republicans’ unwavering opposition.
But the political calculus for the moment is favoring the administration. In the run-up to the midterm elections, it’s hard to keep peddling a horror story to the American people when the reality of millions of sign-ups tells a tale more persuasive than random opinion polls about how ordinary Americans feel.