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Helping People Enroll in Obamacare Is a Way to Volunteer

03/18/2014 11:45 am ET | Updated May 18, 2014
  • Ian Reifowitz Author of 'Obama’s America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity'

What should we do now? That's a question politically active folks are constantly asking themselves (not to mention arguing over with one another). Should we focus on the next election(s), so that we can hopefully get better laws enacted, laws that reflect our beliefs on how best to help people? Should we focus on more direct action, volunteering for service organizations that are already helping people? Of course, there's no single right choice, and it doesn't have to be either/or. On that point, a pretty amazing group of college student volunteers in Alabama (and they aren't the only ones) have embarked on a mission that addresses both at the same time.

This group is called Bama Covered, and they are helping people enroll in health insurance plans through the exchanges established by the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Many people simply haven't gotten over to an exchange to sign up. Others, once they head over to that exchange, need help navigating their way through it. That's where people like Marlan Golden come in. A student at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Golden has been helping the kitchen and cleaning staff who work on campus to get covered:

"These are people who feed us and clean up after us but have no health care," said Golden as he helped enter data for one woman who ultimately selected a silver plan from Blue Cross and Blue Shield. Bama Covered is an explicitly non-partisan, non-political organization, which helps explain why it attracted Megan Ryan, a self-described "conservative in morals and politics." Ryan has offered information sessions on a weekly basis at her church. "It was encouraging to see faces light up when they realize they can have health care," she said. "I feel like I'm making a difference." The group's founders believe that their model can be replicated in every state.

The author of the New York Times article commented that the effort "has the feel of student activism from an earlier time, like the push to register blacks to vote during the civil rights era." Whether one thinks that may be a bit much in terms of rhetoric, the actual state results are hard to quibble with, as Alabama is having more success getting people enrolled in a health insurance plan via the exchange than the national average.

For those of you who aren't college students in the state of Alabama, there are other groups, such as Enroll America, and the youth-focused Young Invincibles, engaged in similar efforts. Helping people enroll in health insurance plans before the March 31 deadline to enroll for 2014 is something you can do right now to improve the health of your fellow Americans.

And from a political perspective, there's almost certainly nothing more productive you can do with your time between now and March 31 than get involved in this effort. Republicans emboldened by the defeat of Alex Sink's congressional campaign in Florida last week think they'll be able to run against Obamacare in the midterm elections. Personally, I think they are deluding themselves (and I'm not the only one). But the way to make sure they can't do so is to help Obamacare succeed. The more people who get covered, the more it will succeed, by definition. Additionally, the more who get covered, the more support will build for maintaining the law itself, creating a virtuous cycle, as Mike Konczal argued in an article I highly recommend. That's where volunteering over the next two and a half weeks comes in.

One thing Republicans are right about is that the new health care law will be an issue in the coming midterm elections. Unfortunately for them, a recent Bloomberg poll showed 64 percent of Americans either want to keep the law as is (13 percent) or keep it with "small modifications" (53 percent), an overall figure that represents the law's best showing yet in Bloomberg's polling.

Going forward, the Affordable Care Act remains the most visible domestic policy achievement of the Obama administration, and even, arguably, of liberalism in the post-1965 era. Whether we like it, love it, or neither, progressivism needs this law to succeed because the fate of the two are linked in the mind of the American public. Only success will give us the opportunity to make needed improvements to the law. Failure will ensure not only that the law disappears, but that the old, pre-Obama status quo becomes permanent, at least until and unless the system literally crashes, while millions go without coverage and tens of thousands die in the meantime.

Even as civic-minded conservatives like the aforementioned Ms. Ryan are doing the right thing by helping get folks enrolled, we have seen countless right-wing politicians sabotage Obamacare, seeking to drive down enrollment numbers (think for a second about the cynicism of actively working against people acquiring health insurance). It certainly is tempting to focus on the law's shortcomings, starting with the lack of a public option, not to mention the superiority of single-payer. Doing so is an important and useful way to move the Overton Window on health care reform.

But (you knew there'd be a but), from now until March 31 let me suggest that we focus our energies on what is good about the Affordable Care Act, including: the guarantee that you won't be denied coverage because of a pre-existing condition, that you won't face premium discrimination based on gender, the access it provides to reproductive health care, not to mention the money the law spends (which it raises via taxes on the wealthiest Americans) on subsidizing premiums for lower-income Americans.

And let's not just focus on the positive, let's do what we can to actually get people signed up for health insurance, just like those college kids in Alabama are doing. Isn't getting people covered what the advocates for universal health care have spent a century fighting for? Now the law is on our side. We just have to help our fellow citizens across the finish line.

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