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The Affordable Care Act has resumed its role as a political football, as U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa) seeks to separate herself from the field in Pennsylvania’s Democratic gubernatorial primary. With each of her competitors also voicing support for the law, Schwartz, touting herself as its preeminent supporter, paints the others as pretenders to the throne.
She certainly has a point. As a member of Congress, she is the only gubernatorial candidate who actually voted for the law known as Obamacare. Schwartz also helped to craft some of the language that eventually found its way into the law, and supported the legislation even as Republicans mounted a prolonged and effective public relations campaign against it.
In an effort to catch frontrunner Tom Wolf, who is far ahead in the polls, Schwartz has pushed the Affordable Care Act to the forefront of her campaign. Her television ads feature Schwartz with President Obama—a tactic that might play well in Philadelphia, but will alienate voters in the state’s rural areas. She has attacked Gov. Tom Corbett for his refusal to expand Medicaid, and in joint statements with Congressmen Chaka Fattah and Robert Brady, both Philadelphia Democrats, Schwartz has also attacked Corbett’s proposed alternative to the Medicaid expansion as harmful to women.
Schwartz’s embrace of the Affordable Care Act is a gamble—one designed to galvanize her Philadelphia base. If Schwartz can win even half of the 557,000 Philadelphia votes that Obama garnered in the 2012 presidential election, she could win the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
However, betting on Obamacare is a risky proposition, because while more than eight-million people have signed up for health insurance through the government exchanges set up by the Healthcare Law, those trying to use the insurance have had mixed results.
Take Linda Reid, for example.
Reid, who lives in South Jersey but works in Philadelphia as a social worker for an agency that subcontracts with Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services, is not rich. Last year she made just $22,000 in her current position, which does not provide health insurance.
With a sick daughter who needed consistent coverage, and chronic health issues of her own, Reid went to the federal health insurance marketplace. Like many who tried to use the troubled website, she had difficulty.
“I would walk around the house with my Bluetooth attached, because I knew I was going to have to hold on for hours,” Reid told me in January. “A couple times I got an operator and I’d give her basic the information and then the phone would be disconnected. I would be trying to go through the website, and the website was always down. One time I filled out my name and got a portion of my address in there and then it went down. It was very frustrating.”
On Christmas Eve Reid finally got through. After signing up and receiving confirmation, Reid was required to contact her insurer and make a payment. She was able to do so for her dental plan, which she secured through United Concordia Health, but had difficulty doing so for her medical plan with Amerihealth-New Jersey.
Amerihealth solved that issue for Reid after I contacted them for comment on the story. But the dental plan, which initially looked like the easy part, turned out to be a lot more complicated than it initially seemed.
In March, when Reid showed up at a Sicklerville, N.J., dental office with her daughter, Suzzana, Reid believed the dental insurance that cost her $53.75 a month would cover her daughter’s dental needs. It didn’t.
“When I got to the dentist’s office they asked me to fill out some forms,” Reid told me in an interview. “That’s when [the dental office] told me my daughter had no coverage. They ran the insurance and told me the coverage was only for me, not for her. I spoke to Concordia on the dentist’s telephone and they said there’s nothing we can do for you and then I proceeded to call on my phone to see if it could be remedied somehow and they said, ‘Well, no, because your daughter has Medicaid, and no one is going to allow you to pay for dental insurance if she has Medicaid.’ ”
Reid made numerous calls to try to get to the bottom of it but was told that United Concordia would not supplement her daughter’s Medicaid coverage. Meanwhile, Medicaid will pay for only one routine checkup per year, plus cleanings, fluoride treatments and fillings for cavities. Suzzana Reid needs braces, dental surgery and more, her mother said, and the cost could run into the thousands.
Asked what she believes happened, Reid was direct. “I don’t think they processed the information correctly. I think it was a huge processing problem. I think they were very quick to sign people up because people were complaining and there were a lot of delays with the [Healthcare Exchange] website.…
“They could have sent a letter saying, ‘Your daughter’s covered under Medicaid, and you don’t qualify for this.’ Something should have been said prior to me making that appointment.”
I contacted United Concordia for comment. “Unfortunately we will not be able to discuss the particulars of this inquiry with you. As required by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), we are not permitted to discuss an individual’s personal health information with you,” the company said through spokeswoman Beth Rutherford.
Be that as it may, I don’t believe Reid’s story is unique. As things shake out with Obamacare, there will be others who will share tales like Reid’s—stories of triumph and inspiration, frustration and miscommunication. And winding through those stories will be two familiar threads: technical glitches and human error. That is the inevitable reality of a large, new government program.
That’s what makes Allyson Schwartz’s dependence on the Affordable Care Act as a campaign linchpin so risky. No matter how many people are insured, no matter how many lives are saved, no matter how many families are spared the financial ruin of medical bills, there will always be a story to highlight the program’s failures.
If Allyson Schwartz is to take advantage of the Affordable Care Act’s potential to change her campaign’s trajectory, she’ll have to do what the Obama administration has never managed to do. She’ll have to take control of the narrative, and she’ll have to do it sooner than later.