President Obama unveils a healthcare law primer at Prince George's… (Michael Reynolds / European…)
WASHINGTON — For years, President Obama's healthcare law has been praised, excoriated, legally challenged, upheld as constitutional and debated some more.
Now, with its online insurance marketplaces days from opening for business, the White House is focused on a task that many of the law's supporters complain is overdue: explaining it.
On Thursday, the president debuted a healthcare primer in a speech meant to convince young, uninsured Americans that they will find insurance coverage to suit their budgets.
The speech was laced with political jabs at congressional Republicans who want to gut or delay the program, but mostly it was a direct plea to Americans to give the new virtual marketplace a try when the six-month enrollment period opens Tuesday.
"This is real simple," Obama told the crowd at a community college in Largo, Md. "It's a website where you can compare and purchase affordable health insurance plans side by side, the same way you shop for a plane ticket on Kayak, same way you shop for a TV on Amazon."
"You've got new choices," he said. "You've got new competition because insurers want your business, and that means you will have cheaper prices."
The administration has faced considerable criticism from fellow Democrats for not selling the Affordable Care Act, as the law is called, in the 3 1/2 years since Obama signed it into law. White House officials have countered that until the benefits became clear to consumers through the online system, such efforts would have been futile.
A few glitches in that system are popping up. Small businesses in almost three dozen states will have to use paper forms to sign up until November because that part of the online system isn't ready to go.
Republican critics noted the irony of what was supposed to be a cutting-edge digital operation resorting to snail mail and, as one GOP staffer scoffed in an email, "facsimile machines!"
But advisors to the president are hoping that the shopping experience of comparing plans, with subsidies and lower premiums available for many users, will win people over.
Obama and his White House have their work cut out for them. Polls show that uninsured Americans, the primary target for the law's new marketplaces, are wary. A Pew Research survey conducted last week found that the uninsured were as likely to disapprove of the law as they were to approve of it, with about one-third of those without insurance saying they thought the law would have a negative effect on them. Only half of the uninsured surveyed knew that the law offered subsidies.
"The policy is complicated. It doesn't lend itself to slogans and one-liners," said Patrick Griffin, former legislative director for President Clinton and now the academic director of the Public Affairs and Advocacy Institute at American University. "This is really the critical moment for the president, as people get to know the program."
Attracting consumers, particularly young, healthy ones whose support is essential for the system to hold costs down, has been priority No. 1 for the Obama administration during much of this week. Most everyone, from the commander in chief to rank-and-file staff, has explained details to the media.
Obama's speech will be followed by a series of events in which White House and agency officials will fan out to participate in conferences, briefings and online conversations with target groups.
In a preview of the online sign-up, White House Deputy Senior Advisor David Simas showed more than three dozen reporters how the "experience" works.
Applicants answer questions about their age and income, then find plans for which they are eligible. They can select from four plan levels — bronze, silver, gold or platinum — and compare premium costs, coverage and providers.
The administration has invested heavily in time and money to make sure the online prompts work, knowing that one glitchy experience can turn off a potential customer and create a talking point for the law's opponents.
"News flash: There will be glitches. When glitches arise, we will fix them. This is what you do," Simas said, noting that other complex healthcare initiatives have also had problems when they were rolled out. "We are confident that, when things arise, there are teams and people in place that will address them and remediate."
The federal government has been training people at community centers, clinics and hospitals to guide applicants through the process. Call centers will be open 24 hours a days to help resolve problems.
Even the looming government shutdown, which could start Tuesday, won't threaten the rollout of the president's signature plan, administration officials vowed. Key workers already have been designated as "core and essential" and will continue to work even as other government employees are furloughed.
The program, Obama said at Prince George's Community College, "is going to happen in five days."
On Capitol Hill, opponents of the law were hard at work to prove him wrong.
House Republicans want a one-year delay of the healthcare program in exchange for granting Obama's request to raise the national debt limit by Oct. 17.
"The president says, I'm not going to negotiate," House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said Thursday after talking over the strategy with colleagues. "I'm sorry, but it just doesn't work that way."