Welcome to Obamacare’s Ground Zero

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
March 9 2014 11:30 PM

Obamacare’s Ground Zero

Florida’s 13th congressional district may be where Democrats learn to live or die with the Affordable Care Act.

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Not long ago, Williams had a job and could at least find the money for check-ups. She was a hair and nail stylist before the carpal tunnel set in. “I used to be able to do, like, two heads, maybe three, depends on the style,” she said. “And one day I went down to doing one, and then I went down to not doing anything. Now, I don’t do nothing. My main passion is going to be in nursing. And I can’t do none of that. I can’t lift up nobody. I can’t even hold up my grandgirls. And I have seven grandgirls.”

Right then a Get Covered worker bounded over, unaware of how miserable our conversation had been. He carried a digital camera, and crooked under his arm was a white piece of paper with the event’s hashtag: #GetCovered.

“Do you want to tell people about getting covered, on Twitter?” he asked.

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“Oh, no, no, no,” said Williams. She was polite; the eager volunteer hadn’t been close enough to see that her eyes were watering. No, she wasn’t the ideal candidate for a meme.

Who would be? The morning ticked away and the room started to fill up, but the people most eager to talk about their health care had signed up already and appeared to show their support. Mike Long, a 27-year-old film editor, regaled me with the story of how he dithered about coverage, bought a bronze plan on Jan. 1, then spent the day after New Year’s in the hospital after eating “bad all-you-can-eat sushi.” The plan paid for itself. “Instead of a $2,500 hospital bill, I had a $90 hospital bill.”

A beat reporter from the Tampa Bay Times showed up to cover the Doctors for America event. The media population on the scene had doubled, to two, and would rise no higher. A Get Covered organizer let me in on the joke: As soon as the website started working and the sign-ups became real, the media had stopped covering the enrollment story.

At 10:30, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn arrived to inject some energy into the gathering. The coverage campaigners adored Buckhorn, a Democrat who carried himself like the world’s oldest and most optimistic cherub. President Obama adored Buckhorn, telling a recent conference of mayors that this guy had gone “all in” on the health care law, and they could, too. Buckhorn toured the health center and planted himself next to the Doctors for America and enrollment helpers who’d been delivering a lengthy, challenging PowerPoint about the law. He broke it down easily.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, activists with Doctors for America, and health center staffers enrolling people in exchanges make the sign of a hashtag.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn (in blue), activists with Doctors for America, and health center staffers enrolling people in exchanges make hashtag signs.

Photo by David Weigel

“I’m sure there will be some people who’ll continue to try to derail this,” said Buckhorn, “but the more people who get registered the more popular it will become. I think people realize that a lot of this is political. There are people, you know, who can’t get beyond the fact that President Obama was elected to a second term. And unfortunately, the rollout was not as smooth as we had hoped.”

The rollout—that’s what most Democrats, Alex Sink included, lead with when they talk about the law. They talk about the first troubled weeks of healthcare.gov, and then they offer that, sure, the law needs to be fixed. They’re comforted by polling, which—if framed the right way—finds a substantial majority against flat-out repeal of the law. Sink’s pollster now says voters trust her message, the fix-what-we’ve-got message, more than Jolly’s unspecific pledge to repeal. Buckhorn was optimistic that Sink would win out.

“It’ll be interesting to see,” said Buckhorn, “because my sense is that district is far more moderate than the Republicans would have you believe. We’ll know in the exit poll how much of an effect this will have.”

Before leaving the enrollment event and driving back to Pinellas, I found another unsatisfied customer. Sarah Taylor, a 61-year-old Jamaican-British immigrant from a town an hour up the road, worked pro re nata and needed coverage. She got information, but no concrete plan.

“I’m hoping I won’t have to change my doctor,” she said. “It’s time consuming to figure that out. I’m going to go home and look in a more conducive environment, if you know what I mean. But having said all that, I think this”—she pointed at the navigators—“this is great!”

As Taylor talked, there was a yelp of delight from near the raffle table. The homeless woman, skinny and skittish and hanging around long after she failed to sign up for coverage, had won a new Crock-Pot. Taylor’s sister, who lived closer to the health center, shot the woman a frown.

“She’s going to sell it,” she said. “I see her everywhere! She not leaving here today. Anything free happening anywhere, she is there.”

“And she won the Crock-Pot,” said Taylor, shaking her head.

“That is going to be sold.”

Taylor shrugged. “There’s that type of person who always think that the world owes them everything.”

I left Tampa and drove back to the 13th district, making it to the parking lot of Haslam’s Book Store in St. Petersburg. It was the final stop on a quasi-campaign, quasi-literary tour for Charlie Crist, the one-term Republican governor of Florida who’d become a Democrat and declared for his old job. An art gallery across the street displayed a sign that made good use of Crist’s tanned trust-me visage and of current Gov. Rick Scott’s unfortunate habit of looking like a bald shark or a Harry Potter villain when he laughs. Vote Crist, read the sign. Defeat Voldemort.

140307_POL_CharlieCrist
Charlie Crist at Haslam’s Book Store in St. Petersburg.

Photo by David Weigel

Crist started signing his books, hugging anyone with a ticket. When a paraplegic voter couldn’t make it all the way to the signing desk, Crist jumped out in front of it, taking a knee, talking politics.

“The Democratic Party—party of the people!” he said. “Jesus was a Democrat.” He paused for effect. “Probably.”

The sort of person who’d wait in line for a copy of The Party’s Over was inclined to vote for Crist in November and for Alex Sink on March 11. Nobody I talked to at Haslam’s was aided in any real way by the Affordable Care Act. They didn’t blame the president for that. “I have type one diabetes and I’ve been without health insurance for about seven years now,” said Erin Mitchell, a 43-year-old book editor. “And I take thyroid pills. Actually, when Charlie was governor he managed to get a new benefit passed, and I get those pills cheaper to this day.”

But the ACA didn’t do anything for her—she made too much to earn a subsidy—so she relied on dual citizenship in a country with socialized health insurance. “Basically, my health plan is always having enough cash to get on a plane to Ireland.”

One of Crist’s endorsers, state Rep. Dwight Dudley, stood over to the side. He was checking his smartphone for news about the Crystal River nuclear plant, an existentially important issue that wasn’t affecting this congressional election at all. The health care issue was, however. Dudley started to talk about the bad will engendered by healthcare.gov, but I nagged him to explain whether the Democrats could survive the canceled or expensive plans.

“I’m not going to say some people won’t be disappointed,” said Dudley. “They clearly are. But in the main, I know a lot of people paying less for their insurance now. Is it all great? No, it’s not. Should it be worked on, and fixed? Yes.”

It was just the sort of answer Alex Sink was giving on the stump. “There’s enough of a polarizing, negative attitude that it’s not a great thing to run on,” said Dudley. “It could have been rolled out so much better.”

Democrats have no better answer. They’ll have better, crisper candidates than Sink, who bristles when she has to deliver the fix-it-don’t-repeal-it Obamacare answer. Some of them will have said “if you like your plan, you can keep it” in the unforgiving view of a video camera, and Republicans will have the money to play that on repeat for voters. The candidates who endure will learn how to handle themselves when Americans for Prosperity or the Chamber of Commerce locate the people—and there are plenty of them—willing to go on camera to describe how their care was ruined by Obamacare.

“I'm hesitant to say that a race in Pinellas County will be echoed in Montana,” said Rob Engstrom, national political director for the Chamber of Commerce. “But I don't think the problem goes away if Sink wins. Look at the verbal gymnastics she’s going through to defend the law. It's like the comedy hour when I read these clips. The health care law was a liability before this race started. It’s going to keep on being a liability.”

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