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Presidential duet sings praises of ‘Obamacare’

NEW YORK – With the federal government moving toward a partial shutdown over Republican plans to defund “Obamacare,” two presidents took to the stage here Tuesday to defend it.

President Obama, the 44th president, joined Bill Clinton, the 42nd, at the Clinton Global Initiative’s annual meeting to dig into the Affordable Care Act and urge uninsured Americans to sign up for health insurance – as the law requires – starting next Tuesday.

Obama encouraged such Americans to go to government-run websites – in New York, – to learn the facts about the health care law that he said the critics are ignoring.

“They’re trying to scare and discourage people from getting a good deal,” Obama said. “Make your own decision about whether it is good for you. What we are confident about is when people look and see they can get high-quality, affordable health care for less than their cellphone bill, they’re going to sign up.”

Meanwhile, Clinton – who was hosting his annual meeting of movers and shakers making commitments to do good around the world – looked at the larger picture.

“I think this is a big step forward for America,” he said of the health care law. “This will, over the next decade, not only make us healthier, but it will free up, in the private sector, largely funds that can then be reinvested in other areas of economic growth, and give us a much more well-balanced economy.

“But first, we’ve got to get everybody to sign up.”

This was the second time in the last month that Obama has enlisted Clinton to defend the health care law. And it’s just the start of a national campaign in which Obama will employ Vice President Biden and several Cabinet members – including Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez, a Buffalo native – to explain a complex law that the public has been dubious about since Congress passed it in March 2010.

“What you’ve had is an unprecedented effort that you’ve seen ramp up over the last month or so in which those who have opposed the idea of universal health care in the first place and have fought this thing tooth and nail through Congress and through the courts and so forth have been trying to scare and discourage people from getting a good deal,” Obama said.

Clinton agreed – and noted that in the Obama administration’s rush to encourage uninsured Americans to go onto the new online health “exchanges” to sign up, the stakes are very high

Noting that the cheapest plans will cost young people only $100 a month or so, Clinton said healthy people must sign up for insurance to counterbalance all the older, sicker people who will be coming onto the insurance rolls now that the law prevents insurers from discriminating against them.

“This only works, for example, if young people show up,” Clinton said.

Coming a year after Clinton dazzled the Democratic National Convention with his down-to-earth defense of Obama’s policies, Tuesday’s joint presidential appearance was highly anticipated.

But Clinton – dubbed “the secretary of explaining stuff” after the convention speech – largely played the role of moderator Tuesday, asking Obama questions about the health care law and less often delving into the details himself.

Yet both men seemed bent on debunking what Democrats say are myths surrounding the health care law.

Obama, for example, tackled the argument that the health care law is increasing insurance costs. Pointing to New York State, he said that just the opposite is happening.

“It turns out that their rates are up to 50 percent lower than what was available previously if you just went on the open market and you tried to get health insurance,” Obama said. “Fifty percent lower in this state. California – it’s about 33 percent lower. In my home state of Illinois, they just announced it’s about 25 percent lower.”

Clinton noted that the health care law has seemed to tame rising health care costs.

“In the last three years, just as we started doing this, inflation in health care costs has dropped to 4 percent for three years in a row for the first time in 50 years – 50 years,” Clinton said. “Before that, the costs were going up at three times the rate of inflation for a decade.”

Getting health care costs under control will have huge ramifications, Obama said.

Pointing out that health care costs are projected to be the main drivers of the federal deficit in years to come, the president said: “We are bending the cost curve and getting at the problems that are creating our deficits in Medicare and Medicaid.”

Republicans have argued that the health care law will increase federal spending, but Clinton contended that it’s actually projected to cut government spending by $110 billion over a decade.

Clinton also pushed back against Republican arguments that the health care law is discouraging small businesses from hiring.

Starting in 2015, the law will require businesses that employ more than 50 people to offer their full-time employees health insurance, prompting Republicans to argue that the bill is creating a “part-time economy.”

That’s just not so, Clinton said. “The overwhelming number of people who have been hired coming out of this recession have been … hired at lower wages, but they have been full-time employees,” he said.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former first lady, New York senator and secretary of state, introduced the two presidents – nearly 20 years after her Clinton administration health care reform effort collapsed, and three years before a presidential election where she’s widely expected to be a candidate.

But Hillary Clinton left all the serious talk on the health care issue to her husband and Obama, who beat her in the race for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.

Obama insisted that on the health care issue, it is time to cut past all the rhetoric and get down to what the health care law really means: a nation where everyone will finally have access to affordable health care.

“Look, nothing is free,” Obama said. “The bottom line, though, is do we want to continue to live in a society where we’ve got the most inefficient health care system on earth, leaving millions of people exposed to the possibilities that they could lose everything because they get sick? Is that the kind of society we aspire to?”