Going door-to-door for Obamacare
Dec 9, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 13 • By MATT LABASH
I’ve come to Florida to go door-to-door with the foot soldiers of Get Covered America, the boots-on-the-ground division of Enroll America, which bills itself as a “nonpartisan 501(c)(3) organization whose mission is to maximize the number of uninsured Americans who enroll in health coverage made available by the Affordable Care Act.” These Obamacare evangelists are very serious about the “nonpartisan” nature of their business. Nearly every Enroll America staffer I speak to emphasizes it, often repeatedly. And while it might strain credulity that an organization is nonpartisan which seeks to make sure people are Obamacared for by setting $100 million fundraising goals for itself, and conducting $5 million ad campaigns, and targeting 10 different states, 9 of which are coincidentally run by Republican governors, I choose to take them at their word.
After all, Enroll America boasts all manner of nonpartisan credentials. Most of its staffers seem to have worked in the nonpartisan Obama presidential campaigns of 2008 or 2012, often both. Its president, Anne Filipic, served as deputy executive director of the nonpartisan Democratic National Committee, and came here straight from the nonpartisan White House Office of Public Engagement. The nonpartisan Obamacare czar, Kathleen Sebelius (whom Filipic also worked for), has admitted putting the arm on companies to make donations to Enroll America, sparking several nonpartisan congressional investigations.
And after decidedly partisan conservative gadfly James O’Keefe and his undercover Project Veritas crew caught Texas Enroll America communications director Chris Tarango on tape conspiring to help obtain a private list of potential Obamacare enrollee data for political purposes, a national Enroll America spokesman told me again: “Enroll America is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization,” it doesn’t technically enroll people “so we don’t have any sensitive personal data,” and though the video “does not show any violation of our nonprofit status,” even the suggestion of any violation is “inappropriate” and the “employee seen in the video has resigned from his role with Enroll America.”
With my nonpartisan concerns allayed, we’re ready to roll! At the Hollywood public library, I meet up with Get Covered America’s Katie Vicsik and Rhianna Hurt, 2 of 28 Florida staffers (they also have nearly 1,800 volunteers on the ground in the state). They are twentysomething, earnest, clipboard-carrying, and as adorable as speckled pups. They’re the Platonic ideal of Obama campaign staffers (which they both were) from back in the salad days, when the winds of hope’n’change blew across the prairie, and there was still dew on the world.
To be sure, these Obamacare evangelists are not insurance saleswomen. They’re not closers. They don’t actually sign people up for policies in the Obamacare marketplace, but rather, direct them how to do so. They sing the attractively anodyne highlights of the program—“financial help is available,” no discrimination for preexisting conditions. They give phone numbers and information to help people meet in person with a Navigator (a contractor paid to guide enrollees through the process) and circumvent the plagued website. They are goodwill ambassadors. They are, in a sense, storytellers. And it’s a hard gig to be an Obamacare storyteller these days, because for the last two months, there have been so many stories told. Not good stories, either. In fact, if Obamacare threatens to bankrupt any industry, it’s the liberal-media-bias-watchdog industry. Since now, news outlets across the spectrum are falling over each other to tell Obamacare stories, mostly about how lousy Obamacare is.
They tell stories of how the cancellation-to-enrollment ratio is 50-to-1. Or how 34 times more people are interested in buying guns than Obamacare. Or how only five people enrolled in D.C., one enrolled in North Carolina, and none in Oregon. Or how cancer patients are losing their doctors. Or how premiums will increase by an average of 41 percent. Or how 40 percent of HealthCare.gov’s “back office functions” haven’t been built yet. Or the story of the Brooklyn couple who are considering divorce just so they can get better rates on their newly hiked insurance. Or the rare Obamacare feel-good story: In Colorado, a dog was (mistakenly) enrolled.
These, as you’ve probably guessed, are not the stories Get Covered America tells. On their website, many regular ol’ Americans tell tales of triumph, of finding affordable insurance!, with lots of exclamation points!!! and a noticeable lack of last names!!!! This takes the burden off reporters to check them. Because when Enroll America provided an Obamacare success story to hungry reporters shortly after Obamacare launched—featuring an interviewee who also happened to have been an Obama campaign volunteer—he turned out not to have completed the enrollment process after all.
On the ground, however, Katie and Rhianna are light touches. They don’t hard-sell. They don’t discuss premiums (Enroll America’s internal polling showed that discussing prices, even when emphasizing subsidies, was death to prospective enrollees). They don’t use flashpoint words like “Obamacare” if it can be helped—only “the Affordable Care Act.” All they want to do, Katie tells me, is to provide information, to apprise people of their options. They are not interested in political debates. “We always stress that we’re nonpartisan,” says Katie.
So I’ve heard.
With their microtargeted lists, we start hitting likely uninsured addresses in a semi-sketchy, palm-fronded neighborhood of cramped condos and low-slung bungalows, the kind with window-air units and burglar bars. On a Saturday evening, nobody’s home most places. Some, emphatically not, with lock-boxes on their doorknobs and the mailboxes taped shut so no junk mail—say, a Lillian Vernon catalog or an Affordable Care Act flier—can be placed in them. At one condo, after Katie introduces herself, a harried man speaks to us from behind the door, his dog going off in the background, the red tendrils in the whites of his eyes illuminated like warning flares. “This is a bad time,” he says. He looks like he’s had a few of those.
Others already have insurance. Or they’re in a hurry and can’t talk now. The girls remain stalwart, dutifully soldiering on. I ask Katie if she has insurance from the Obamacare exchange. She’s insured through Enroll America, she tells me, and is quite happy with it. “If you like it, and get it through your employer, you can keep it,” she says, almost touchingly.
As we walk the streets, we make small talk. They are buoyant and charming and relentlessly positive. Trying to stir things up a bit, I ask how things go at their Get Covered America “house parties” for the volunteers. Are there Jell-O shots? Is there drinking out of navels? Maybe a little twerking—I hear the kids today like to twerk. “They supply snacks, maybe wine or something,” says Katie, not rising to the bait. “I think that’s good because it helps volunteers meet other like-minded people.”
The girls tell me that they’re heartened by their experiences. They see people getting affordable health care, and being educated about their options. As of yet, they haven’t encountered any of the 300,000 (minimum) Floridians who’ve had their insurance canceled. They say they haven’t seen the hostility, when I ask if they’ve gotten heckled, pelted with rotten produce, or assaulted by Sean Hannity-watchers. At their tabling/enrollment events with Navigators, Katie sees people zipping through the site in 20 minutes. “I’m encouraged by seeing that. I think the numbers are going to rise,” she says. (They have nowhere else to go, at the moment—as of the beginning of November, only 3,571 Floridians had successfully signed up.)
From here, things quickly go south. At what looks like a hoarder’s house—detritus tumbling out of the living room, unopened FedExes sitting on broken porch furniture—a graying woman named Joyce Lipman answers the knock. Katie makes her sunny pitch, saying where she’s from and how her “grassroots organization” wants to “educate folks about what their new health insurance options are.”
“You mean Obamacare?” Joyce says, a contemptuous edge in her voice.
Joyce is then off to the races with a 15-minute harangue on all her health problems, and how the insurance at the hospital where she works now sucks because of Obamacare. She tells of her diabetes, and the testing strips she can no longer afford. She shows us the hole in her gum, left by recurring mouth tumors. It’s getting uncomfortable.
Want to see my tumor? Thanks, Obamacare.
As the girls try to collect a phone number for follow-up before slinking off, Joyce is still giving us the business. She voted for Obama—“twice!”—she says. “But this is going to be a backlash like you would not believe! . . . Republicans will rule the House and the Senate! . . . They’re not thinking this through!”
Rhianna, right, and Katie pitch enrollment to Joyce Lipman.
A few houses later, Rhianna tries to straighten out an address on her list with two guys standing on a porch—one African American, wearing flip-flops and jogging shorts with no shirt, the other looking like the Cuban-American rapper Pitbull. They exchange pleasantries, and Rhianna asks if they both have insurance and are pleased with it. Yes, they assent.
But when I ask the gents if they have any intention of signing up for Obamacare, they start laughing—at first politely, then almost violently. “No!” says Pitbull. “And wait online 18 hours?” “Obamacare!” says Shirtless, elbowing Pitbull. Pitbull then starts making finger-pistol signs directing me down the street. “Keep on walking with Obamacare,” he says, still convulsing.
Some 10 minutes later, we encounter Welly Corgelas, an African-American auto detailer, on the sidewalk in front of his house. He’s talking to a crunchy-looking white guy named Jeff. When Katie moves in for the literature drop, Jeff sounds reasonably open to shopping around, even if he already has insurance. Though he seemed more interested before he knew who we were, when he thought we were petitioning on behalf of medical marijuana. I tell Jeff that Obamacare forces insurance companies to cover marijuana. It doesn’t—at least I don’t think so. But it does force them to cover obesity screening and counseling, among many other electives. So who knows? Give it time.
Welly is not having any of this, and decides to give the girls a workout. He’s a little on the sore side. A small-business owner who is a healthy 37 years old, he just had his insurance plan canceled because it didn’t meet the new Obama-care requirements. (His insurer, apparently, hasn’t gotten the message about Obama’s one-year patch, to forestall cancellations.) Katie, sensing opportunity, makes her push. But Welly says he wouldn’t dare go near the website, with all the security concerns. When she floats the Navigator/phone support option as an alternative, he rebuffs her more aggressively.
“I’m going to be honest with you, I’m probably not going to call them,” he says, breaking things down animatedly. “This is how I see it: The government is still running it. That’s the problem. Insurance companies have always taken advantage of people. Government takes advantage of people. But like, the two of them are going to get together and create something that helps the people? I’m very skeptical, okay? Two barracudas getting together and saying we made something good for you? I just don’t buy that.”
If you want to help people get better insurance, says Welly, the government never had to be involved. They could’ve incentivized employers with tax breaks to better cover employees, he theorizes. “So you’re saying just tell the businesses to pay more?” asks Katie, still thinking like an Obamissar. “No!” barks Welly. “Not tell the business, incentivize the business.”
Right about now, a squad car pulls up, and a buzz-headed cop motions for Welly to come over. I am incensed on his behalf. A black man gets a little lippy with some white girls, and immediately the cop assumes he’s harassing them? But the cop doesn’t want to talk to Welly, he wants to talk to the girls. He asks them who they are and what they’re doing. He explains the police have had some complaints about them causing disturbances in the neighborhood. They point out that they’re just educating people about their health care options, and haven’t disturbed anybody. I second them, as the Obamacare pom-pom girls are nothing if not mannerly. The cop says it doesn’t matter. If they want to canvass door-to-door, they have to get a permit at city hall.
A smile creeps across Welly’s face as the officer drives away. “What kind of sense does that make?” he says, now running up the score. “Think about that. You’re doing the work of government, then the government comes over and says, ‘Hey’ . . . ”
Katie is not amused. For the first and only time, I see her mercury rise. “We’re a nonpartisan organization,” she chirps. “We’re just trying to get information to you.”
“I know,” Welly says, feinting like a gentleman, but still grinning like he found money in the street. “So you guys have Obamacare?” he asks. Katie informs him they’re already insured by their employer, and that if they like it, they can keep it.
“Yeah, well, that changes next year,” Welly says, now cold as ice. “Remember the business mandate? They pushed it back.”
One morning, I decide to see the net-cinching end of Enroll America’s efforts by sitting in on an enrollment session that they cosponsor with two contracted Navigator groups, who help people in person sign up on the Obamacare insurance exchange. In a computer lab at Miami Dade College, a roomful of nearly 100 uninsured or underinsured citizens, with the help of 19 or so Navigators, take the daunting plunge into HealthCare.gov.
It goes—how to put it—eventfully. It’s not the unmitigated disaster of by-now-familiar Obamacare lore. Nor is it as bad as a few days after my visit, when Kathleen Sebelius tows reporters to a Navigator session in Miami, only to have the system crash outright. At least the system is up today, though still buggier than a roach motel.
In the interest of not driving readers to slumber, I’ll skip all the false starts, unexpected sign-offs, spooky security questions (they knew a street I lived on for three months 20 years ago), and all-around dysfunction. Overseeing us is my Navigator, who works for a health care concern I’ll call the Ebola Foundation. He asks not to use his name, and when I tell him to pick a fake one, he settles on “Blade,” adding, “Blade Sharpe. I’ve always wanted to be called that.”
While much ugliness has been written about Obamacare Navigators—everything from their being illegal aliens to criminals—I have to say that I quite like Blade. He’s gregarious and honest, making no attempt to cover for the website’s prodigious failures. Plus, he makes colorful small talk during the many lulls when the “green circle of death” (signaling a page is about to time out) looms like the Reaper’s scythe. I try to punch through the system myself, just to price plans, and when I jokingly say that it’s kind of a personal question when asked for my sex, Blade expresses disappointment that the site offers only a binary gender choice. He sincerely informs me that he took a Queer Theory class in college, and it’s no longer just LGBT rights we should be concerned with, but LGBTQIQAA. I make a note to Google it later, as I don’t want to risk the site crashing now.
To give the CliffsNotes version of the three-hour session, it went a little like this: The woman beside me, named Jenny, a naturalized citizen from Ecuador, spent two and a half hours trying to crunch through the system before it finally returned her to the first page, then locked her out. She never even saw the prices. When Blade had her call the phone support hotline, they told her she’d need to wait three weeks to find out the status of her application. The same happened to her colleague, Sue, sitting next to her. They both need insurance now, because the endocrinologist they work for had to cancel theirs because it didn’t meet Obamacare requirements. They’re hoping not only that they can get insurance, but also that they can keep their jobs, since Jenny, who does billing for the doctor, says Obamacare is completely convoluting how, if at all, they’ll be able to collect money from patients.
Two men sitting behind me get to a price list, though one wigs out because of the high premiums and leaves. The other finds a relatively cheap plan, but the deductible is so high, for his family of four, that he says, “I can’t touch this.” And he leaves, too. The two people on the other side of Jenny and Sue, whom I never even meet, leave after about 30 minutes. Blade suggests it’s probably because of “sticker shock,” if they even got that far. A recurring problem, he says, in his line of work.
All told, even with all the hand-holding Navigators, I’m assured by members of the two Navigator groups who worked the session that of the 100 or so prospects in attendance, exactly none walked out with a completed enrollment. As the room thins out after three hours of frustration, Blade takes a chair next to me, not so much sitting as sagging into it. He looks like someone let the air out of his balloon.
A former Obama campaign staffer, he believes in this stuff. He left his regular job at the Ebola Foundation to take this one-year Navigator gig, and he’ll be out of a job when it ends. Even though his organization is fielding the contract, his old position will have been filled. So Blade’s serious about seeing Obamacare work. But it’s not working. I ask how this disaster, for lack of a better word, could happen. Blade has a theory.
He cites the movie Apollo 13. When it looks like the ship is going down, and someone says that this could be “the worst disaster NASA has ever experienced,” Ed Harris’s character says, “With all due respect, sir, I believe this is going to be our finest hour.” This, he says, is the Obama administration’s bunker-mentality.
“They’re thinking of this as the biggest challenge of their lives,” says Blade. “And if they overcome it, yeah, it’ll be the biggest success. It’ll be the Jets winning the Super Bowl in 1969. Nobody thought it would happen, and here we are.”
For a moment, it looks like Blade’s sails are filled once more with the winds of hope’n’change. Then they sag. “But that is looking like a bigger if. Every single day that goes by, the chances of the Jets winning the Super Bowl get slimmer and slimmer.”
Matt Labash is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.
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