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Hard Sell

Going door-to-door for Obamacare

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

Katie just wants her to take a pamphlet so Joyce will know what her options are, and what coverage she’s entitled to. The woman needs supplemental insurance, she admits, now that Obamacare has sent her deductible skyrocketing from $400 to $1,500. She’s now getting to the point where she has to choose between paying for food and paying for medicine. Everybody at her work is incensed, she insists. While I’m not entirely clear how her employer’s insurance was bunged up by Obamacare (even after I try fruitlessly to pin down the details in all the excitement), Joyce is 100 percent convinced. Thus illustrating an important Obamacare reality: It has now achieved such negative critical mass that it not only gets blamed for what it does do, but for what it doesn’t. In North Carolina recently, a Department of Transportation official issued a traffic alert after an accident. It warned of “Women Drivers, Rain, Obama Care.” 

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  

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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