March Marks A Crucible For Obamacare As Deadline Nears

Facing a deadline, the Obama administration is desperate to boost enrollment in health care exchanges. Still millions from their goal, they're stepping up outreach and forgetting politics — for now.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The president's signature law, the Affordable Care Act, is facing two tests. First, can the White House convince enough people, especially young people, to sign up for health insurance before the March 31st deadline to make the program a success? And second, can the president's party defend the law at the polls? Well, today was an important day on both fronts and NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us now with the latest.

And Mara, lets start with electoral politics and a special election to fill a vacancy from Florida in the House of Representatives. What happened?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: What happened is the Republican won. It was a Republican held seat for a very long time, but the Democrats thought they had a good candidate in Alex Sink, someone who'd run statewide before, who'd held statewide office. And she ran against David Jolly, former staffer for Bill Young who was the late congressman who had held that district. The Republican won.

Now, that's probably what should've happened. This is a Republican-leaning district, especially in congressional elections, although Barack Obama did win it very narrowly. But the Democrats had put a lot on this election. They were going to try to prove that they could win in a district like this. They got the candidate they wanted. They spent a lot of money. And they also had a message about Obamacare, which was basically: mend it, don't end it. Of course, David Jolly, the Republican, ran on the Republican line that we should get rid of Obamacare. Replace it. He didn't say what with, but replace it.

So I think the upshot of this is that Republicans will feel even more validated in their belief that Obamacare - opposing Obamacare is a winning ticket for them in the fall.

SIEGEL: Well, turning to the signups for health insurance, how are they doing in Florida with signups?

LIASSON: Well, Florida I think is doing OK. The numbers we got today were national numbers, 4.2 million people signed up so far. Young adults are still lagging as a percentage of the total. They're only about 25 percent. You need a lot of young, healthy people to make the insurance system - any insurance system - work because they have to subsidize the older, sicker people in the system. So the president is looking for more of them.

SIEGEL: And to increase those numbers, especially the numbers of young people, the White House seems to be pulling out all the stops, which today included the president sitting down for an interview with actor Zach Galifianakis.

LIASSON: Yes. He went on the comedy website funnyordie.com. Zach Galifianakis has a mock celebrity interview show called "Between Two Ferns." It's kind of a parody of low-production-value television, and it specializes in awkward moments that sometimes are actually funny. He asked the president, what is it like to be the last black president? And Barack Obama answered, what's it like for this to be the last time you ever talk to a president? So it's cheeky. It's kind of rude. But the White House says it got 5 million views and it was the leading driver of traffic to healthcare.gov. So it clearly got young people to go to website. We don't know whether they signed up.

SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Mara Liasson reporting on signups for Obamacare, but also on the special election today in Florida.

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