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Obamacare's Hidden Heroes

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The tense voiced woman whose cat disappeared just before it was time for the woman to start her shift won't make today's news on Obamacare.

In some ways, that's a good thing for her. She works in a giant Call Center. On the front lines of breathing life into The Affordable Care Act. She speaks to people when the web site quakes, or when people are exceptionally angry, or confused or just want to complain. She doesn't get a lot of calls from people thanking her how well things are going. She's not complaining. She understood that being on the front lines of perhaps one of the most massive social changes in American history would not be an easy job. Especially, as is true of most any job, when real life worries of your own like that missing cat, were on your mind as you slid on your headphone, pressed a button on your computer and opened up the phone line to become a target.

Hard to imagine that the woman with the missing cat, her compatriots in the call centers, the navigators working street locations across the country, and the management structure standing behind those on the front lines will someday be considered heroes. But when we look back at these times from the not too distant future, we very well could call them heroes.

First, because everybody's Obamacare Story is different. And these potential heroes deal with all of them. Take any line of spin doctoring from anyone. Any purported "fact" or even real fact. Then breathe in and suspend judgment. In the time it takes you to draw that breath, somebody else could offer up a contradictory anecdote disproving your point. One that would also be right. Or at least just as right as yours.

That's not to preach, "both sides do it." A whole other set of baggage comes with that. The point, when you strip away all the political noise, is that everybody's Obamacare story is different. Like so much else in American life, it all depends on where you live.

Ratchet up the debate to policy and you get valid questions on whether incremental change as put forth in the AFA, a plan that began life in a conservative think tank, is both better and possible than if the more radical course of a single payer system were put in place. Or, "Is this how the government should be involved in health care?"

Feel free to debate. The lady with the missing cat will go on trying to make the law work. Questions like, "When you try to please everybody, do you risk pleasing nobody?" don't often come up on her calls.

What bleeds into her calls are the deepest, most personal issues of trying to stay healthy in a world where massive numbers of Americans simply can't afford to be healthy, eat, and have a roof over their heads. Subjects that inspire gut twisting anger and fear. Perhaps, if you have read this far, if you're not sure of my political leanings --even though they are totally not the point of this story--just the words HERO and OBAMACARE in the headline will prompt anger.

The point of the story is the woman with the cat. That she could somehow form a bond with a stranger--me--that was strong enough to share the sadness of loosing a pet. Something that had NOTHING to do with Obamacare. But from that real bond, she could take a genuine interest in solving the "defective enrollment" problem I was having. She could try every which way to make the system work for me. Even in spite of the fact that she did not have the authority to make the needed change in my enrollment. A tough problem for management of the operation. Having run a large call center through most of the nineties and gone on to consult in other centers, I knew the problem well. How much authority to make financial decisions do you push to the front lines? If you are Zappos and the risk is the cost of the shoes, you can push lots of authority to the font lines. But if you are a brand new marketplace with a million moving parts being implemented as it's built with the risk of billions of dollars . . . . you think a little more before loosening control on the money. Which makes it hard for the woman with the cat to solve a problem with just one call. So she escalated. And that's where I ran into more hidden heroes.

A top level Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services official had an email listed on the web. Assuming she'd never respond, I wrote and asked about my escalation that was not moving at the speed that CMS Training (also found on the web) said it should be moving.

What happened next was that the official emailed me back in 15 minutes. This was on a Sunday afternoon. She copied in another official who responded in 24 hours. He led me to the Caseworker--the guy who made the change in my enrollment and insured that I had the policy I had selected and bought. A total pro.

The result for my family? One-third the cost of what I had been paying. Better coverage.

I'd tell you all the heroes names, but that would leave out the rest of their team. I can tell you, with authority, that they are a dedicated group of people working 24/7 to make this massive change happen. Even in the face of everybody's story, everybody's problem being different.

And when we all look BACK at The ACA, when all the screaming stops, when the anger is acknowledged and dealt with, when the act is no longer an excuse for bad behavior from every corner . . .

You might find some hidden heroes too.