1 of 3 | Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) (center) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) (right) applaud with other Democrats at a press conference celebrating the start of open enrollment for the Affordable Care Act, in Washington, D.C. on October 1, 2013. UPI/Kevin Dietsch | License Photo
WASHINGTON, Oct. 1 (UPI) -- The federal government was closed Tuesday, but the health insurance marketplace opened coverage opportunities for millions of Americans, President Obama said.
"It's been a long time coming, but today, Americans who have been forced to go without insurance can now visit healthcare.gov and enroll in affordable new plans that offer quality coverage," President Obama said in the White House Rose Garden surrounded by people who will benefit from the exchanges that are part of the Affordable Care Act, colloquially known as Obamacare.
"[We] can get America covered once and for all so that the struggles that these folks [surrounding him] have gone through and millions around the country have gone through for years finally get addressed," Obama said.
The marketplaces -- a centerpiece of President Obama's signature healthcare reform law -- are designed to make healthcare more widely available and affordable for millions of people nationwide. Available online, over the phone and in person, the marketplaces also determine if a person is eligible for federal subsidies to offset insurance premium payments. Individuals with incomes between 100 percent and 400 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible to receive subsidies.
"Let me just remind people why I think this is so important," Obama said of health coverage. "I heard a striking statistic yesterday: If you get cancer, you are 70 percent more likely to live another five years if you have insurance than if you don't."
"Think about that. That is what it means to have health insurance," Obama said.
Starting Tuesday, there is a six-month open enrollment period for individuals to comparison shop for health insurance, Obama said.
"So for the next six months, people are going to have the opportunity, in many cases for the first time in their lives, to get affordable coverage that they desperately need," he said.
The health plans go into effect Jan. 1 if people sign up by Dec. 15. The open enrollment for the first year ends March 31. Starting next year, open enrollment will run from Oct. 1 to Dec. 7.
The 85 percent of Americans already with health insurance don't have to do anything, Obama said.
"But for the 15 percent of Americans who don't have health insurance," he said, "this opportunity is life changing."
Most Americans must be insured next year or face a financial penalty of $95 or 1 percent of their household income, whichever is greater. Some requirements, such as the mandate on larger employers to provide affordable health benefits, have been postponed.
Obama recognized that there would be glitches in the roll out, but vowed they would be fixed during the day.
"For example, we found out there have been times this morning where the site has been running more slowly than it normally will," Obama said. "The reason because more than 1 million people visited healthcare.gov before 7 a.m. in the morning."
To add context, Obama said, "there were five times more users in the marketplace this morning than have ever been on Medicare.gov at one time. That gives you a sense of how important this is to millions of Americans around the country."
Tens of thousands of Americans die each year just because they don't have health coverage, Obama said, while millions of Americans fear they'll go broke if they get sick.
"And today we begin to free millions of our fellow Americans from that fear," he said. "This law means more choice, more competition, lower costs for millions of Americans."
He said he'd work with "anybody who's got a serious idea" on making the Affordable Care Act work better.
"I've said that repeatedly," Obama said, adding, that as long has he was president, though "I won't give in to reckless demands by some in the Republican Party to deny affordable health insurance to millions of hard-working Americans."