Health care push comes to bars, nail salons

Ann Sanner/Associated Press
Sunday, November 16, 2014

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The pitch for health care coverage is being made at nail salons, pizzerias, mosques and even bars.

As the second enrollment period under President Barack Obama's health care law begins, advocates are employing new tactics and expanding old ones to reach people who need insurance. Some groups are targeting populations they believe slipped through the cracks during the last enrollment period.

"We've had great success at laundromats," said Robin Stockton, the navigator program director for the Center for Family Services, a nonprofit based in Camden, New Jersey.

The informal chat between wash-and-dry cycles can pique interest and lead some customers to call their hotline for more information, she said.

"Typically," she said, "the question you get back is: 'Is this that Obamacare thing?'"

Open enrollment started Saturday and runs until Feb. 15. The HealthCare.gov website, where people can sign up and search for coverage, appeared to be running smoothly Saturday.

Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell tweeted that the website opened shortly after 1 a.m., with more than 23,000 people submitting applications within the first eight hours. She said 1.2 million unique visitors looked at coverage using the site's window-shopping tool in the last week.

In Washington state, though, the health care exchange shut down after the first few hours of open enrollment as state officials and software engineers tried to resolve a problem with tax credit calculations.

And just days before open enrollment, an old video clip surfaced showing an adviser who helped draft the law saying "the stupidity of the American voter" helped Democrats pass the complex legislation. Obama, just before leaving an economic summit in Australia on Sunday, said the public was not misled about provisions of the law. He said there was no provision that was not extensively debated or made fully transparent.

The Obama administration aims to have 9.1 million paying customers enrolled in 2015. That's well below the 13 million that the Congressional Budget Office had projected.

In Philadelphia, Enroll America organizer Neil Rickett is armed with a list of 500 bars and restaurants as he makes his way through downtown, popping in and out of eateries. He approaches bartenders, wait staff and other service industry workers whose high turnover and odd hours often result in a lack of health coverage. He gets workers' contact information and sometimes schedules appointments to meet with them.

"By going to them, we're upping our chance of getting the people we missed or didn't get enrolled last time," Rickett said.

In New Jersey, Stockton's nonprofit is among the community-based groups guiding people through the enrollment process. When they aren't taking appointments, the 17 navigators take their enrollment message on the road.

The helpers set up tables of brochures at festivals and malls. They make cold calls to pizza parlors, Chinese restaurants and other small businesses where they sometimes post information on bulletin boards. And with encrypted tablets and mobile offices, they have signed people up for coverage at churches, synagogues, mosques and a Buddhist temple.

"We're very flexible about the times that we can go out and make it convenient," Stockton said.

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