By Mark Felsenthal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Fending off delays and a barrage of political criticism of his signature healthcare law, President Barack Obama on Thursday touted benefits Americans already are reaping from the law and vowed to work through setbacks to fully implement it.
"Generally speaking, what we've seen is that healthcare costs have slowed drastically in a lot of areas since we passed the Affordable Care Act," Obama said at a White House event, surrounded by individuals who have seen their health insurance costs drop.
"I recognize that there are a lot of folks, in this town at least, who are rooting for this law to fail," the president said. "What I've heard is just the same old song and dance. We're just going to blow through that stuff," he added.
The president took to the soapbox just weeks after having to delay a requirement for businesses to offer health coverage in 2014, or pay a fine, because the administration had yet to issue final regulations in time for employers to comply.
Days after that July 2 announcement, the administration said it would delay and loosen requirements for new state online insurance marketplaces to verify the income and health coverage status of people who apply for subsidized coverage.
Congressional Republicans, who have repeatedly sought to repeal the health law, pounced on those delays and urged Obama to also put off requirements that individuals obtain health insurance.
Republicans are set to make the healthcare law a top campaign issue in next year's congressional elections, and the Republican-led House of Representatives on Wednesday approved largely symbolic legislation to delay portions of the law.
Senator Marco Rubio, considered a potential Republican candidate for president in 2016, on Thursday urged lawmakers to withdraw funding for it.
"The reason this issue is still being talked about is because Obamacare is a disaster," Rubio said.
Administration officials have struggled with the task of launching the new online health insurance exchanges at the heart of the law, sometimes called Obamacare, by an October 1 deadline.
Their efforts to implement the law have been hampered by limited staff and financial resources, as well as by steady opposition from congressional Republicans.
At the White House, the president said the law, formally called the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, was responsible for sending refund checks to some 8.5 million people as a result of lower insurance costs.
U.S. insurers will pay $500 million in rebates to employers and individuals because the law requires companies to pay refunds to customers if they spend less than 80 percent of the premiums they collect on medical care, the administration said last month. That will mean an average rebate of $100 per family for about 8.5 million insurance customers, the government said.
The president also cited lower-than-expected insurance rates in New York and other states as evidence the law is trimming costs.
New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Tuesday that residents were likely to see their health insurance premiums cut in half as the law draws people into health insurance markets. California said in May that rates would fall as much as 29 percent.
Administration officials also pointed to a Department of Health and Human Services report concluding that cheaper insurance rates are likely to be the norm rather than the exception in 11 states.
The HHS report says the costs of plans will be lower than originally anticipated. For example, in the 11 states covered in the study, a mid-range plan in the individual market in 2014 is on average 18 percent less expensive than previous government and congressional estimates, the administration said.
Similarly, the report showed that the cost of the least expensive mid-level plan available to small employers in six states studied by the government is expected to be 18 percent lower than they would have paid for a similar plan before the law was enacted.
Some of the rate forecasts may be lowered before the exchanges are opened in the fall, the administration said.
Obama is hoping to use the positive developments to build support for a critical component of the law: getting healthy young adults to register for health insurance plans to counterbalance older, sicker enrollees and hold down costs.
Administration officials hope to sign up 7 million people nationwide during an enrollment period that begins on October 1 and runs until the end of March. They say they are focusing on an estimated 2.7 million healthy adults ages 18 to 35.
But in their stream of criticism of the law, Republicans say it will actually raise the costs of healthcare for all Americans, trigger an avalanche of new regulatory burdens on businesses, and inhibit hiring.
The delays have given Republicans ammunition to argue that the law was a bad idea in the first place.
"The law is turning out to be a train wreck," House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement in response to Obama's speech. "The law is costing American jobs; it's forcing people to give up health plans they like; and it's driving up the cost of care for families across America."
(Reporting by Mark Felsenthal; Editing by David Brunnstrom and Vicki Allen)