U.S. President Barack Obama lashed out at Republican opponents of the health care law he pioneered on Thursday ahead of a key deadline for enrolment and vowed that he would stop attempts to get the program bogged down in an ongoing budget stalemate.
In a feisty speech at a Washington-area college, Mr. Obama defended the 2010 Affordable Care Act against Republican critics who say it is an example of government gone too far.
“The Affordable Care Act is here to stay,” he said.
He singled out for ridicule a Republican state lawmaker who said the law is as destructive to personal liberty as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required captured runaway slaves to be sent back to their owners.
“Think about that: Affordable health care is worse than a law that let slave owners get their runaway slaves back,” Mr. Obama said. “All of this would be funny if it wasn’t so crazy.”
The Affordable Care Act, Mr. Obama’s signature achievement from his first term, is still regarded skeptically by a majority of Americans who worry that it will lead to higher health-care costs and cut jobs.
It faces a crucial test starting next Tuesday when Americans begin enrolling in exchanges through which they will be able to buy health insurance. Computer glitches are slowing the roll out in areas such as Washington D.C., Colorado and Oregon.
The White House said Thursday online Spanish-language enrolment for Latinos, who make up about one-third of the 47 million uninsured in the country, will also not be available until some time between October 21 and 28. Spanish speakers will still be able to enroll through a call centre or enrolment specialists known as “navigators.”
Administration officials did not explain the nature of the technical problems, and Republicans seized on news of the latest delay.
“This is just the latest example of his rhetoric about the law not matching reality. It’s clear that the exchanges aren’t ready for prime time,” Republican Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming said.
The Obamacare roll-out has required the creation of a massive information technology infrastructure to allow federal agencies, individual U.S. states and insurance companies to process applications for health coverage and determine subsidies for eligible Americas. The administration is counting on signing up seven million people via the exchanges in their first year.
Earlier this month, health insurers complained of problems displaying basic information about the plans they will sell on federally-run exchanges in 36 states. Among states that will run their own exchanges, Colorado, Oregon and the District of Columbia pared back their launches to address technical problems.
“I would imagine that the most critical defects are on the way to correction,” said Rick Howard, a research director at technology consultant Gartner and an expert on public-sector IT, referring to the small business enrolment delay. “But it’s going to be a rough ride.”
While Obamacare’s foes in Washington pressed for delay of the entire law, members of the business community sounded a more supportive note.
“This is a huge undertaking and October 1 is not the only opportunity for small businesses to enroll. The glitches will come and we hope they will be speedily resolved. But in the meantime I don’t have the sense that small businesses were lined up at the gates waiting to get in,” said Neil Trautwein, health-care lobbyist for the National Retail Federation.
John Arensmeyer, chief executive of the Small Business Majority, said Obamacare would bring major change to the U.S. health-care system “so having a month delay is not a huge issue in the greater scheme of things.”