The Magazine

Hard Sell

Going door-to-door for Obamacare

Dec 9, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 13 • By MATT LABASH
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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.

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