Politics & Government

Obama uses health care to push Democrats on offensive

With a dozen words, President Barack Obama offered a campaign argument that he’s counting on to turn his health-care law from a liability into a winner for the November elections.

“This thing is working,” Obama said at the White House Thursday. “The repeal debate is and should be over.”

Obama’s announcement that 8 million people enrolled for insurance coverage, a million more than estimates made six months ago, marks a comeback for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act after its botched rollout last year.

The political stakes are high for the president’s party. Republicans need a net gain of six Senate seats to take control of the chamber, and of 36 being contested in November Democrats are defending 21.

Obama’s statement was offered to Democrats as a counter punch to Republicans, who have repeatedly tried to repeal the law and have made it a central issue in the mid-term elections.

Republicans say they'll keep on swinging.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a potential candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, posted on Twitter as Obama’s news conference was still under way, saying, “The repeal debate is far from over.”

Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Republican leader, also reiterated his party’s intent to repeal the law and the message its candidates will try to drive home to voters.

“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 a statement.

Obama’s main objective is to make the point that the law is here to stay, according to an administration official, who asked for anonymity to discuss strategy. He plans a two-pronged counter to the Republican message by highlighting how much it would cost Americans to lose benefits under the law, and that the repeal efforts are being made at the expense of other legislation that would benefit the economy.

The intent is to give voters a negative picture of what full Republican control of Congress would look like, the official said. Obama’s remarks reflected the strategy.

“We’ve been having a political fight about this for five years,” he said. “We need to move on to something else. That’s what the American people are interested in.”

Campaign analyst Stu Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, said Obama is trying to get Democratic candidates to move off defense onto offense.

“He understands there are plenty of Democrats running around the country trying to finesse the issue rather than use it, or trying to deflect it,” Rothenberg said.

Many Democratic Senate candidates are “in real trouble,” he said. There are 12 of the party Senate seats “that are at some level of risk.”

The four most vulnerable are in South Dakota, West Virginia, Arkansas and Montana, Rothenberg said. All are states that are dominated by Republicans and which Obama lost in 2008 and 2012.

Obama increasingly has public sentiment on his side.

Fifty-one percent of Americans favor retaining the Affordable Care Act with “small modifications,” according to a Bloomberg National Poll conducted March 7-10. Thirteen percent would leave the law intact and 34 percent would repeal it. That was the highest level of public acceptance for the law yet in the Bloomberg poll.

Republicans have an advantage in the intensity of the opposition. Seventy-three percent of Bloomberg poll respondents who would repeal Obamacare say the law will be a “major” decider of their vote, compared with 45 percent of those who support modifications and 33 percent of those who back the law as is.

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.”

The next test, for both the law and for Obama, will come as insurers begin setting rates for next year. Along with the higher than forecast total enrollment for coverage, the administration said about 35 percent of Americans who signed up for a private plan using new insurance exchanges were in the young adult age group.

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, Calif.

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

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.”

– With assistance from Mike Dorning and Alex Wayne in Washington.