I was back in the crowded East Room of the White House on Thursday, as I was 13 years ago, this time standing under a portrait of first first lady Martha Washington, when President Joe Biden entered for a lunchtime event focused on the Affordable Care Act.
The room looked much the same as it did on March 23, 2010, when I had rushed over to the White House to witness President Barack Obama signing his historic health bill into law. I knew from that moment — standing under a portrait of President Teddy Roosevelt, who was the first chief executive to espouse a need for national health insurance — that my life as a health journalist would never be the same.
Yet, when Biden scheduled an event to commemorate the 13th anniversary of the health law, I was unsure of the need to keep commemorating its birthday.
After all, on the 13th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson signing Medicare and Medicaid into law — July 30, 1978 — the Democratic president in the White House did not hold an event to commemorate the date when tens of millions of older Americans and lower-income people gained coverage. Then-President Jimmy Carter spent that Sunday at Camp David.
But with the ACA in 2010, after a century of debate, the U.S. health system was getting hit with a thunderbolt that would enable millions of people to gain medical coverage. The law made many changes affecting hospitals, doctors, insurers, drugmakers, and employers in an effort to live up to its lofty name by lowering costs.
Those sweeping 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 for even longer than I had anticipated. After 13 years, the job is still not done. North Carolina on Thursday became the 40th state to expand Medicaid under the ACA.
Biden used the health law anniversary to tout the law’s influence. He reminded his audience that Republicans still want to strip many of its benefits. He also stressed that the country has unfinished business to lower drug costs for many and expand health coverage to people who still don’t have it. Indeed, more than 2 million people are without coverage in the 10 states — highly populous Florida and Texas among them — that have yet to expand Medicaid.
Many former Obama staffers who helped get the law passed were there — including some who work in the Biden White House. (Obama was not there.) So, too, were several Democratic lawmakers who helped pass the law, including former House speaker Nancy Pelosi and former California congressman and now Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra.
“Look, 13 years ago today, we gathered in this room as President Obama signed into law the Affordable Health Care Act,” Biden began with his remarks. “Hard to believe 13 days ag- — 13 years ago. It seems like 13 days ago.”
“And I remember the three words I used at the time,” he said as many in the audience recalled the swear word he was caught whispering to Obama via a live microphone. “I thought it was. I thought it was a big deal. And I stand by the fact it was a big deal.”
Biden said that the health law has been called by many names, but that the most appropriate is Obamacare.
The law has become ingrained into the fabric of the country, Biden said. Over 40 million Americans are covered by Medicaid or online insurance marketplace plans, the highest on record, the Biden administration said Thursday. That’s 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 was important to take time to remind people what the American health system used to look like as well as the many challenges remaining to improve it. (Altman is the daughter of KFF’s president and CEO. KHN is an editorially independent program of KFF.)
“We still have places to go, and we still have work to do and the people in that room are excited to keep doing it,” Altman said.