Open enrollment in Obamacare ended much the same way it began, with technical glitches greeting those seeking new health plans.
But as the clock struck midnight on the deadline for people to obtain health insurance or pay a fine — unless they claim to have faced technical problems when signing up — the debate over Obamacare shifted into one that will be defined mostly on policy terms.
The battle lines are clearly drawn: Democrats will argue that despite all the setbacks in implementing the president's signature achievement, the White House and fellow progressives will receive credit for adding millions of Americans to the ranks of those with health care coverage.
Republicans will counter that Obamacare’s problems extend well beyond the website, that Americans will suffer from sticker shock over the cost of rising premiums and the public will revolt against another big-government solution to a vexing social problem.
Whichever side better sells their position will likely prove triumphant in November's midterms, in which control of the Senate is up for grabs.
Central to the argument over the merits of Obamacare will be answering questions about just how many of those signing up for new health plans were previously uninsured and whether they have actually paid their first month’s premium.
Critics contend the Obama administration is cooking the books on enrollment information, and that a fuller portrait of the tradeoffs at the core of the Affordable Care Act will undermine the White House's sales pitch.
“You have to look at the cost of doing all of this,” said Dennis Smith, former health secretary under Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker. “And when you get down to the number of people who are enrolled and previously uninsured, I think the amount of money spent per person is going to be pretty eye opening.”
A new study from the RAND Corporation found that of the estimated 6 million people who signed up for Obamacare plans through federal and state marketplaces — as of March 27 — roughly 2 million were previously uninsured.
In total, 9.5 million people are newly insured, whether through the private market, Medicaid expansion or staying on their parents' health plan until the age of 26, the study found.
Republicans argue that simply touting those numbers glosses over the flaws of such health plans.
“The president's health care law continues to wreak havoc on American families, small businesses and our economy, and as I've said many times, the problem was never just about the website - it's the whole law,” Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Monday. “Millions of Americans are seeing their premiums rise, not the lower prices the president promised.”
As the administration scrambles to tally the final amount of sign-ups — a number that will be delayed until the grace period ends for consumers who encountered technical difficulties — they’ll be asked to give a fuller portrait of those who have paid for new insurance coverage.
The administration is counting enrollment figures without verification of payment, a practice dismissed widely by GOP lawmakers.
“For their initial customers it's somewhere between 80 and 85 -- some say as high as 90 percent -- have paid so far,” Sebelius told Oklahoma City's News9 Now, citing insurers' figures.
Recent surveys haven’t confirmed such a bullish estimate and the administration did not further clarify the source of Sebelius’ assessment.
Still, Democrats said Republicans would pay a political price for brushing off the number of people gaining access to health insurance for the first time.
“To quote a certain vice president, this is a big [expletive] deal,” said a Democratic pollster close to the White House. “Sure, the rollout was a mess. But perceptions of the law will improve and Republicans will come off as petty and disinterested in progress.”
Conservatives, however, say that supporters of the law will face a rude awakening both in November and beyond.
“People will have to say: ‘Was it really worth all of this?’” Smith said of the $2 trillion investment over the next decade. “I think there is a lot of money that was wasted.”