Not quite the disaster it threatened to be, the universal healthcare law pushed through by the US President, Barack Obama, four years ago and now in the first stages of implementation has attracted a more-or-less respectable six million people just ahead of a 31 March deadline for Americans to sign up.
The number, announced by Mr Obama in a conference call with workers and volunteers involved in luring customers to the online exchanges where policies are offered, is still short of the seven million originally projected for the first sign-up period. But it’s a deal better than seemed likely even a few weeks ago.
The sense of relief at the White House is tangible. And with a final surge of sign-ups expected this weekend it’s possible that the final number will creep closer to seven million. The law was crippled by early problems with the federal online site as well as relentless opposition from Republicans.
That millions have committed themselves to the system makes talk by the Republican right of repealing the law seem pie in the sky. That does not mean, however, that there won’t be attempts to repair some its more problematic features, in some instances even with support from nervous Democrats.
And if there is fizz in the West Wing it will still taste flat. The overall enrolment number conceals all kinds of unanswered questions about the law’s viability. We do not know, for example, what proportion of those who have signed up have actually made a first payment on their premiums. The government isn’t saying, but it could be that 20 per cent have enrolled without putting out money.
“Falling one million short of the proclaimed goal is nothing to celebrate – not to mention the White House still refuses to disclose the most important figure of who’s paid,” said Republican Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn. “As the administration scrambles to conceal its incompetence, millions of Americans are enduring cancelled health plans, higher premiums and lost access to trusted doctors.”
It remains far from clear how close the law, known as Obamacare, will ever come to meeting its original goal: bringing at least an approximation of universal healthcare to America. The majority of those opting in right now are people who already had coverage but are looking for cheaper options. There are still close to 40 million people who have no coverage at all.
The law, officially the Affordable Care Act, remains a mighty political liability for Mr Obama and his party which is likely to get a walloping in mid-term congressional elections in November. A new AP-GfK poll last week suggested that a mere 26 per cent of Americans support the law, the lowest level ever.
Reaching the six-million mark did not come easily. In recent weeks the White House has made a huge effort to persuade sceptical Americans that the online insurance exchange had been fixed. Two groups that came in for particular lobbying were Latinos and young Americans, whose participation is crucial if the law is going to make financial sense.