WASHINGTON – For three years, the Obama administration has been preparing for this moment: the launch of new insurance exchanges, intended to expand health coverage to millions of uninsured Americans. But this is far from the grand opening that President Barack Obama may have expected.
Instead, the exchanges are starting up just as most of the federal government is shutting down, left unfunded by a Congress that’s still bitterly divided about whether to discard Obama’s health care law altogether.
There will be just a skeletal staff at the White House on Tuesday when Obama appears in the Oval Office to tout the benefits of his law alongside Americans who plan to purchase insurance through the exchanges. Many of Obama’s aides, like hundreds of thousands of federal workers across the country, will be on furlough due to the first partial shutdown in almost two decades.
“Unfortunately, Congress has not fulfilled its responsibility,” Obama said in a video message the White House released just after midnight Tuesday, as Congress missed its deadline to keep the government running. “It has failed to pass a budget and, as a result, much of our government must now shut down until Congress funds it again.”
At the heart of the disagreement over a temporary measure to fund the government was whether Obama’s health care law should be allowed to go into effect as written. House Republicans, cheered on by tea party-backed Republicans in the Senate, sought to defund or delay parts of the bill, arguing that once Americans started enrolling in the exchanges, the law becomes harder to repeal.
“The notion is, we’ve got to stop it before people like it too much,” Obama said on NPR News. The interview was taped Monday and aired Tuesday.
Obama has insisted he wouldn’t sign a bill that gutted the law, his signature legislative achievement. Lacking funding from Congress, the White House budget office told agencies shortly before midnight to start closing their doors.
In a bit of irony not lost on the law’s proponents, the main components of “Obamacare” will proceed full speed ahead despite the shutdown that will shutter national parks, veterans’ centres and other government operations until Congress finds a way to break the stalemate. That’s because funding for the Affordable Care Act, like other “mandatory” functions such as Social Security, air traffic control and national defence, is protected from the whims of Congress.
In addition to the Oval Office appearance, Obama will deploy top deputies to spread the message, the White House said. Vice-President Joe Biden will appear on college radio stations. First lady Michelle Obama is publishing an editorial on a women’s lifestyle website. And Obama’s senior adviser, Valerie Jarrett, and other officials will be guests on African-American radio shows.
Tuesday’s events coincide with the digital ribbon-cutting for the exchanges, which will allow Americans to compare and purchase insurance online. The Obama administration needs millions of Americans — mostly healthy, younger people — to enrol to keep costs low for everyone.
Republicans have seized on a list of technical glitches and delays that have emerged as evidence the law isn’t ready to work and will never be. But the White House says that’s true for any big, new program and won’t affect the outcome, since Americans have six months to enrol through the exchanges.
“I would suspect that there will be glitches. This is 50 states, a lot of people signing up for something. And there are going to be problems,” Obama said. “But what we’re confident about is that people will be able to take a look and find out whether this is something that is going to be good for their families.”
In his sole response to the shutdown early Tuesday, Obama directed his comments not at the lawmakers he’s been scolding for weeks, but instead to the military. He made no reference to Republicans or Democrats, but his frustration was clear as he contrasted the professionalism and courage of American troops with lawmakers’ inability to fulfil what he’s described as their constitutional duty.
“You and your families deserve better than the dysfunction we’re seeing in Congress,” Obama said in the video message.
Reach Josh Lederman on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP