WASHINGTON (AP) -- Hailing it as an "historic day," President Barack Obama pressed forward his flagship health care program Tuesday, inaugurating new insurance exchanges to expand access for those without coverage despite the shutdown taking hold across much of the government.
Obama said the opportunity to access affordable insurance is life-changing for those who could not before the launch of the exchanges, which were getting commencing a six-month enrollment period starting Tuesday. As a sign of how eager Americans were to get started, Obama said more than 1 million people had signed on to the system before 7 a.m. EDT - in some cases, overloading the computer systems.
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"This is life-or-death stuff," Obama said in a Rose Garden appearance, adding that tens of thousands of Americans die each year for lack of health insurance, and others go bankrupt. "Today we begin to free millions of our fellow Americans from that fear."
Standing with a group of people planning to sign up for the program, Obama urged Americans to call in or go online, touting a system that he said will offer more choices, more competition and lower prices.
The exchanges were just getting underway as most of federal government operations were shutting down, left unfunded by a Congress still bitterly divided about whether to discard Obama's health care law altogether.
Obama's other message to Americans: The health care exchanges will not be shutting down. That's because funding for the Affordable Care Act, like other "mandatory" functions such as Social Security, air traffic control and national defense, is protected from the whims of Congress.
At the heart of the disagreement over a temporary measure to fund the government was whether Obama's health care law should be allowed to go into effect as written. House Republicans, cheered on by tea party-backed GOP lawmakers in the Senate, sought to defund or delay parts of the health care program, arguing that once Americans started enrolling in the exchanges, the law authorizing the program becomes harder to repeal.
In addition to his own appearance, Obama will deploy top deputies to spread the message of newly-available health care coverage, the White House said.
Vice President Joe Biden will appear on college radio stations. First lady Michelle Obama is publishing an editorial on a women's lifestyle website. And senior Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett and other officials will be guests on African-American radio shows.