It was a notable week for the Obama administration.
In the waning hours of March 31 — the “official” deadline for open enrollment — the White House released a big number: 7.1 million Americans had selected a private health insurance plan through the new health insurance marketplace created by the healthcare law.
This was no small feat for an administration that has spent the last several months moving the goal posts.
So it was understandable when on Tuesday afternoon, a visibly relieved President Barack Obama took what even the law’s detractors might concede was a deserved opportunity to spike the football.
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But the euphoric declarations from the Rose Garden were vaguely reminiscent of President George W. Bush’s ill-fated and imprudent “Mission Accomplished” speech given after the U.S. toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein: premature and out of context.
Kind of like a touchdown dance after a field goal.
The 7.1 million figure, which the president says is “on top of the more than 3 million young adults who have gained insurance under this law by staying on their family’s plan… [and] millions more who have gained access through Medicaid expansion and the Children’s Health Insurance Program,” is of dubious consequence.
Not to mention that the curious release of such a precise number after months of insisting that exact enrollment figures were unavailable is cause enough for suspicion. As The Wall Street Journal editorialized, “Regardless of your partisan sympathies, the White House’s selective disclosure is a crime against transparency and accountable government.”
The figure itself caused National Journal’s Ron Fournier to ask: “What are the real numbers? … We won’t know for weeks whether the administration accomplished its goal of adding 7 million people to the insurance rolls, including a plurality of healthy young adults. The numbers announced Tuesday, while impressive, are incomplete and misleading.”
And while the Los Angeles Times reported that a mysteriously still-unpublished survey by the RAND Corp. estimates a total of 9.5 million previously uninsured people having gained coverage under the new law (through private insurance, Medicaid expansion and young adults through a parent’s plan), only a third of those who signed up in the exchanges are newly insured, and just half have actually paid their premiums, a necessary component of obtaining coverage.
Then there is the question of how many people who have signed up for insurance will stay insured by consistently paying their premiums, which are expected to rise in 2015.
Further calling into question the credibility of any healthcare-related numbers, Bloomberg columnist Megan McArdle points out the last-minute enrollment surge — an “amazingly powerful testament to the American powers of procrastination” — has probably “blown to hell” all the enrollment data anyway.
Even if we are to stipulate that millions more Americans have obtained coverage, the reported number of newly insured Americans is still a fraction of the number Obama initially claimed he wanted to cover (some 30 million) and well below the expected reduction in the percentage of uninsured Americans the Congressional Budget Office had originally projected.
To millions of disillusioned Americans, the only number that matters is that following the dollar sign on their insurance bill, which has remained stubbornly high, and for many conjures memories of the president’s trifecta of broken promises — you can keep your plan, you can keep your doctors, your premiums will go down.
Based on current data, however it shakes out, it’s unlikely that the president’s signature law will be a spectacular failure — no death spiral has yet materialized — but it’s just as unlikely to be a spectacular success. If it were, Democrats up for re-election in November would not continue to keep their distance, carefully parsing their words of praise and interlacing statements with concessions that repair is still needed.
But repair is unlikely to come in Washington while, as Fournier puts it, “the win-at-all-cost mentality [that] helped create a culture in which a partisan-line vote was deemed sufficient for passing transcendent legislation,” remains unchallenged.
And so for the president as for Congress, the next Obamacare-related numbers of significance will come at the polls this November.