I was in the crowded East Room of the White House Thursday as I was 13 years ago, this time standing under a portrait of First First Lady Martha Washington as President Joe Biden entered for a lunchtime event focused on the Affordable Care Act.
The room looked just as it did on March 23, 2010, when I rushed into the White House to witness President Barack Obama sign his historic health bill. I knew from that moment – standing under a portrait of President Teddy Roosevelt – who he was first CEO to get engaged the need for government health insurance—that my life as a health journalist would never be the same.
However, when Biden was planning an event to commemorate the 13th anniversary of the Health Care Act, I wasn’t sure there was a need to continue commemorating his birthday.
Finally, on the 13th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson signing Medicare and Medicaid—July 30, 1978—the Democratic President did not hold an event at the White House to commemorate the date when millions of older Americans and those on low incomes gained coverage . Then-President Jimmy Carter spent this Sunday at Camp David.
But with the ACA in 2010, after a century of debate, the US healthcare system was struck by a lightning bolt that would bring medical care to millions of people. The law made many changes affecting hospitals, doctors, insurers, drug companies and employers to live up to its reputation by cutting costs.
These far-reaching provisions, the years spent implementing them, and efforts by Republicans and the courts to repeal or change the law have kept the Affordable Care Act in the news longer than I expected. After 13 years the work is still not done. North Carolina on Thursday became the 40th state to expand Medicaid under the ACA.
Biden used the anniversary of the Health Care Act to campaign for the law’s influence. He reminded his audience that Republicans still want to scrap many of his benefits. He also stressed that the country has unfinished business to bring down drug costs for many and expand health coverage to people who don’t already have it. In fact, more than 2 million people across the 10 states — including populous Florida and Texas — are without coverage yet to expand Medicaid.
Many former Obama staffers who helped pass the law were there — including some who work in the Biden White House. (Obama wasn’t there.) So were several Democratic lawmakers who helped pass the bill, including former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former California Congressman turned Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra.
“Look, 13 years ago today, we gathered in this room when President Obama signed the Affordable Health Care Act into law,” Biden began. “Hard to believe 13 days ago – 13 years ago. It seems like 13 days ago.”
“And I remember the three words I used back then,” he said, as many in the audience recalled the swear word he whispered to Obama over a live microphone. “I thought it was. I thought it was a big deal. And I stand by the fact that it was a big deal.”
Biden said the health care law has been called by many names, but that Obamacare is the most appropriate.
The law is ingrained in the fabric of the country, Biden said. Over 40 million Americans are covered by Medicaid or online insurance market plans, the highest on record, the Biden administration said Thursday. That is a 36% increase from 2021.
But a 13th anniversary celebration? Jessica Altman, who helped implement Obamacare in the Obama administration and is now CEO of Covered California, one of the Obamacare exchanges, said it’s important to take the time to remind people what the American healthcare system used to be like and the many challenges to improve it. (Altman is the daughter of the President and CEO of KFF. Centre County Report is an editorially independent program of KFF.)
“We still have places to go, and we still have work to do, and people in this space are looking forward to moving on,” Altman said.
Centre County Report (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom producing in-depth journalism on health issues. Along with Policy Analysis and Polling, Centre County Report is one of the three major operational programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a donated non-profit organization that provides information on health issues to the nation.
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