and RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR
WASHINGTON -- Eight million people have signed up for health care through new insurance exchanges, President Barack Obama said Thursday, besting expectations and offering new hope to Democrats who are defending the law ahead of the midterm elections.
Obama appeared in the White House briefing room to trumpet the new figures, which beat initial projections by 1 million people. Equally critical: About 35 percent of those who signed up are under the age of 35, Obama said. Enrolling substantial numbers of younger, healthier Americans is crucial for the law's success.
"This thing is working," Obama said of the Affordable Care Act, his signature domestic achievement.
Obama and Democrats have been anxiously awaiting the age figures, especially those regarding young people -- the most coveted demographic. Younger enrollees tend to be a healthier group overall, so their premiums can help offset higher cost of care for older enrollees. Too few young people in the mix, and the insurance pool could become lopsided and premiums could surge.
The demographic figures also give Democrats an opportunity to blunt the pessimism of Republicans, some of whom have accused the White House of "cooking the books" by announcing large overall enrollment numbers before releasing more detailed figures that provide a fuller picture.
Following the disastrous rollout of the exchanges in October, when HealthCare.gov was virtually unusable, Democrats have been hoping that higher-than-expected results could help their candidates reclaim the political high ground ahead of the midterm elections. Seven months out from Election Day, Democrats are seeking to turn the page on the law's flawed debut -- a strategy underscored last week when Obama announced that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who became the face of the rollout failure, was stepping down.
Polling shows the law remains unpopular in much of the country, but Democrats plan to use the high enrollment figures to argue that by trying to repeal the law, Republicans are actively working to take health care away from millions of Americans who now rely on the exchanges.
"The repeal debate is and should be over," Obama said.
Other critical details for evaluating how well the law is working remain unknown. Officials haven't released a tally of how many enrollees were previously uninsured -- the key to determining how many people gained coverage that they otherwise wouldn't have. Another unknown is how many enrollees sealed the deal by paying their first month's premium to the insurance companies.
Gallup estimates that slightly more than half of those getting coverage through the federal and state markets were previously uninsured, drawing that conclusion from the polling company's large survey tracking the health care overhaul.
Obama and top aides met earlier with leading insurance executives, including the CEOs of Wellpoint and Kaiser Permanente.
"I think that's a pretty good number in terms of trying to make sure we have a healthy pool," Montana's insurance commissioner, Monica Lindeen, said of the surge in younger enrollees.
In another bout of positive news for Obama's health care law, California's state-run insurance exchange reported Thursday that nearly 1.4 million Californians had enrolled by the end of open enrollment, besting the Obama administration's projections by almost 100,000 people. State officials said another 1.9 million people gained coverage through an expansion of California's version of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
With the exchanges and the broader law looking increasingly viable, Obama and Democrats were hoping to move the political debate over "Obamacare" away from repeal and toward efforts to fix lingering issues with the law. Republicans have been reluctant to embrace fixes for fear of tacitly embracing the overall law. Obama said it's "absolutely possible" to make improvements but that it would require a change of attitude from Republicans.
In a statement issued as Obama spoke, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said: "It is time for Republicans to seek treatment for their obsession with repealing the Affordable Care Act, and join Democrats to strengthen and improve its historic protections."