(Adds comment from McConnell spokesman and background)
By Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON, March 27 More than 6 million people
have now signed up for private insurance plans under President
Barack Obama's signature healthcare law known as Obamacare,
reflecting a surge in enrollments days before the March 31
deadline, the White House said on Thursday.
The milestone gives the White House some ammunition to
counter Republican critics, who have described the program as an
expensive flop in the build-up to midterm congressional
campaigns in November, when Democratic control of the U.S.
Senate is at stake.
Only 10 days ago, the administration had pegged enrollment
at more than 5 million people, and enlisted celebrities and top
government officials to try to persuade more uninsured people,
particularly the young and healthy, to sign up.
The last-minute boost has exceeded the nonpartisan
Congressional Budget Office's estimate that 6 million people
would sign up in the program's first year, down from earlier
expectations of 7 million enrollees because of problems with
websites used for shopping for insurance.
Obama's law, formally called the Affordable Care Act, aims
to make health coverage available to more of the nearly 50
million uninsured people in the United States through government
subsidies to low-income households and rules prohibiting
policies from excluding members due to previous illnesses.
Opinion polls show the program is unpopular. A national
survey by the Pew Research Center between Feb. 27 and March 16
found 53 percent disapproved of the law.
Obama's poll ratings have been hit hard by the poor rollout
of the program. The insurance policies of some Americans were
canceled saw because they no longer complied with new standards
in the law, while some people were stymied by the website, which
failed to work well for two months.
It's unclear how many of the more than 6 million signups are
people who did not previously have insurance. Also unclear is
how many people have paid for their policies, a step necessary
for the plans to take effect.
"Canceling millions of policies, then bragging when they
sign up for another one is a little odd, don't you think?" Don
Stewart, a spokesman for Republican Senate Leader Mitch
McConnell, said on Twitter.
Republicans have argued Obamacare is a costly and unworkable
extension of government control and have vowed to overturn it.
Even while traveling in Italy on Thursday, Obama could not
escape controversy about the program. After he visited Pope
Francis, the Vatican issued a statement expressing concern about
the law's requirement that employers cover the cost of
contraception in insurance plans.
From Italy, Obama spoke on a conference call with several
thousand people who are helping people enroll in the plans, the
White House said.
"The president encouraged the navigators and volunteers to
redouble their efforts over the next four days and leave no
stone unturned," the White House said in a statement.
'STARTING TO SEE YOUNGER CONSUMERS'
The administration has been aggressively courting the 18- to
34-year-old age group in the waning days of enrollment, a group
they have argued would be the last to sign up, but whose
participation is vital to keep future insurance costs down.
Younger consumers tend to be healthier and cheaper to
insure, compensating for the higher costs associated with older
and sicker enrollees.
Data as of February showed only a quarter of enrollees were
aged 18 to 34, short of the goal of 38 percent that
administration officials set out before enrollment began last
No official updates have since been provided, but there have
been signs that targeted marketing was starting to pay off.
"We are starting to see younger consumers at a higher rate
here towards the end of March," said Kurt Kossen, vice president
of retail marketing at Health Care Service Corp, a holding
company for Blue Cross Blue Shield in Illinois, Montana, New
Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.
Kossen said his company has seen an increase in enrollment
over the past two weeks, with more calls to sales centers and
On HealthCare.gov, the website used to sign up for insurance
in 36 states, traffic has been heavy.
The White House said the site had more than 1.5 million
visits on Wednesday, while call centers received more than
430,000 calls, the White House said.
Monday and Tuesday also saw more than 1 million visits to
the website and more than 350,000 calls to call centers,
according to posts on Twitter by HealthCare.gov.
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius
told Congress earlier this month that the administration would
not extend the March 31 enrollment deadline.
The law requires most Americans to be enrolled in insurance
by that date, or pay a penalty.
But this week, the agency overseeing HealthCare.gov said
there will be a grace period in the deadline for people who say
they experienced technical difficulties on the website or long
wait times at federal call centers.
(Additional reporting by Caroline Humer in New York; Editing by
Sandra Maler; and Peter Galloway)