Washington (AFP) – A key part of President Barack Obama’s drive to offer low-cost health insurance to millions of uninsured Americans opened Tuesday despite a government shutdown over Republican opposition to the plan.
Known widely as “Obamacare,” the Affordable Care Act was passed by Congress and signed into law in 2010, on the promise of helping 30 million uninsured people get health care coverage.
Despite its ambitions to revolutionize American health care, the plan is not free and will not be able to cover all 57 million people in America who lack full insurance coverage.
Advocates have touted it as a major step forward, while opponents like Republican House speaker John Boehner have insisted the plan “is not ready for prime-time.”
New health insurance exchanges began enrolling people Tuesday via the website healthcare.gov, where consumers could browse the options available for private insurance starting next year.
“For years, the financial, physical or mental health of millions of Americans suffered because they couldn’t afford the care they or their family needed,” said U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
“Today’s launch begins a new day when health care coverage will be more accessible and affordable than ever before.”
About seven million Americans are expected to seek coverage by 2014, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
The policies available on the health exchanges range in price according to a person’s income, location, family size and the level of coverage on a scale of bronze, silver, gold or platinum.
All Americans must sign up for some kind of health insurance by January 1 or face a fine.
The government said last week there will be around 53 plans to choose from in the federally-facilitated marketplace.
“The vast majority will have a choice of at least two different health insurance companies — usually more,” said a statement from Health and Human Services.
“Nearly 6 in 10 uninsured Americans could get insurance for $100 or less, with financial assistance and expanded access to Medicaid.”
Most Americans have health insurance — 82.6 percent according a July report from the Department of Commerce based on data from the 2010 Census.
About half get it through their employer, and about 30 percent are enrolled in government-programs like Medicare, mainly for seniors, and Medicaid which covers the poor and disabled.
That leaves 17.4 percent of Americans uninsured.
An analysis in the journal Health Affairs earlier this year projected that around 30 million Americans will still not get health insurance through the Affordable Care Act.
Those gaps are due in part to the Supreme Court’s decision to allow some states to opt out of expanding Medicaid programs, coupled with a cut in funding under the reform plan to safety-net hospitals, it said.
The Affordable Care Act “will leave tens of millions uncovered. It will do little to alter racial disparities in coverage,” said the Health Affairs report published in June.
“The ACA, whatever its merits, will fall well short of its stated goal of providing affordable care for all Americans.”