As House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi took the podium in the Capitol Visitor Center on Tuesday, her exuberance was palpable. At an event sponsored by labor unions and health-care advocacy groups, Pelosi came to celebrate the October 1 opening of the health-insurance exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act (ACA), a piece of legislation that is as much her signature achievement as it is President Obama’s.
More than a million people, Pelosi said, had already signed on to Healthcare.gov or called the toll-free number for information about the exchanges by mid-afternoon on Tuesday, and other speakers at the event, hosted by Americans United for Change, a progressive organization allied with labor unions, noted that the government website was so overwhelmed with traffic that it was running a bit slowly.
“It’s pretty exciting even though there was an attempt to say, ‘We’re going to distract everyone from enrollment in [insurance plans offered through] the Affordable Care Act by shutting down government,’” Pelosi said of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, which voted on Monday to attach a measure to the continuing resolution—the legislation needed to keep government running—that would have delayed implementation of the ACA, also known as Obamacare.
Because the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats, stripped the measure out of the continuing resolution before returning the bill to House, the government was shuttered on the same day that the insurance exchanges opened for business.
As Brad Woodhouse, president of Americans United for Change put it: “At 12:01 this morning, Republicans shut the government down. At 12:01 this morning, Democrats brought affordable health care to the American people.”
Joining Pelosi at the podium was Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has pledged not to negotiate over implementation of the health-care law, for which Republicans also tried to revoke funding with an earlier version of the continuing resolution, a measure that also failed to pass the Senate. Pelosi heralded Reid as a force critical to the ACA’s passage in 2009.
The union members and activists—including dozens from Planned Parenthood—gave Reid a hero’s welcome when he entered the room, apparently in recognition of his refusal to compromise on Obamacare. (The latest House version of the continuing resolution included a delay of the prescription contraception benefit and other preventive health care for women.)
Reid marked the occasion celebrating the health-care law by taking a swipe at GOP predictions of a health-care disaster and by comparing those with similar reactions to the introduction of Social Security and Medicare more than 50 years ago. Recalling remarks made by Ronald Reagan in 1961, Reid quoted the late president, saying: “‘If you don’t stop Medicare, one day you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.’ Well, I haven’t heard anything like that since last night, in the House of Representatives.”
Other members of the House and Senate spoke, include Representatives Sander Levin (D-MI), Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), and George Miller (D-CA), as well as Senators Max Baucus (D-MT) and Tom Harkin (D-IA), who poignantly noted that among the large class of progressives he entered Congress with in 1974, “only four are left.”
Union leaders Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County, and municipal employees also stepped forward to celebrate implementation of the act.
Most moving, though, were the stories of individuals—those of Leslie Boyd, who lost her son before Obamacare’s passage because he was denied a cancer screening by his insurance company, and Maureen Murphy, who said that the Affordable Care Act had literally saved her life after private insurers rejected her for a pre-existing condition, making it impossible for her to get treatment of a life-threatening immunological disorder.
After the event came to a close, members of the American Federation of Government Employees gathered on the capitol grounds. “We Want to Work,” their signs read.