The big number in the news this week was 1.1 million – the number of people who signed up for health insurance through Obamacare's federal insurance marketplace this year. This is an important figure, especially given the fact that it stood at little more than 100,000 at the end of November.
Nevertheless, that 1.1 million figure dramatically understates what the Affordable Care Act has already accomplished. The number we should be talking about is at least 9 million and could be 14 million people who are currently getting coverage under the law.
How many people are currently covered through the law? Start with the 1.1 million who have gotten care through the federal website. If you layer on the number of enrollees who have gotten coverage through state-run exchanges that number tops 2.1 million, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius announced Tuesday. Then throw in the 3.9 million people who have gotten health coverage under Obamacare's Medicaid expansion. Oh and don't forget about the young adults under 26 who are still covered by their parents' health insurance plans thanks to the Affordable Care Act. A year-and-a-half ago, the Department of Health and Human Services put the number at 3.1 million but an August study by the Commonwealth Fund, a private foundation that focuses on health policy research, estimated that the figure had reached 7.8 million. Total those numbers and you get a minimum of 9 million Americans covered through Obamacare and a maximum of nearly 14 million.
To borrow Everett Dirksen's old adage: A million here, a million there, and pretty soon you're talking about real coverage. This is why Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson told the New York Times last week that the Affordable Care Act is "no longer just a piece of paper that you can repeal and it goes away. ... We have to deal with the people that are currently covered under Obamacare."
To be sure there are provisos and qualifications. Obamacare critics will point out that some number of those insured are only replacing coverage they lost thanks to the law disqualifying their plans (of course that will require those same critics to acknowledge that very few of the people losing their health coverage are now bereft); and in the context of 50 million uninsured it's only a start – but it is a start. And while I'm writing this in the waning hours of 2013, it doesn't take a great feat of prognostication to know that the first days of 2014 may well bring another round of Obamacare horror stories as people find out that they don't have coverage they thought they signed up for. The October website disaster's effects are still being felt – the administration had been aiming for 3.3 million signups by now, for example, so the 2 million figure is well short.
The law's well-publicized stumbles have certainly taken their toll in polls. Finally clear of its shutdown self-immolation, the GOP seems to be building its 2014 strategy around Obamacare's flaws. "Ideally, we'd freeze things the way they are in amber until November," a senior House Republican aide told Time's Jay Newton-Small last month.
But putting aside for a moment the fact that 11 months is an age and a day in politics, there's a fundamental flaw in this GOP calculus: Obamacare's not the cutting issue they seem to think it is. Democratic pollsters Stan Greenberg, James Carville and Erica Seifert surveyed the 86 most competitive House districts and found that the country remains deeply divided on the Affordable Care Act. "Health care is not a wedge issue," they concluded.
The right's problem is that it fixates on approval-disapproval numbers without digging into them. So while a CNN/ORC poll conducted in mid-December found that 35 percent favor the law and 62 percent oppose it, only 43 percent oppose the law because it's too liberal; if you add the 35 percent who favor the law to the 15 percent who dislike it because they wish it did more, the GOP 2014 game plan becomes more puzzling. An early December New York Times/CBS News poll tells the same story: 50 percent oppose the law while only 39 percent approve. But only 42 percent think the law goes too far while a total of 50 percent think it either doesn't go far enough or is just right.