POLITICS
09/13/2014 07:30 am ET Updated Sep 13, 2014

How Obamacare Could Be A Huge Boon To 'Alt-Labor' Groups

JEWEL SAMAD via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- Officials at Working America, the AFL-CIO's non-union affiliate, believe they may have found a path toward long-term financial viability -- and it runs through the Affordable Care Act.

The big question for so-called alt-labor groups like Working America -- which have been sprouting up as the ranks of traditional unions dwindle -- is how they can become self-sustaining outside the framework of collective bargaining. Unlike a traditional union, this labor group for people who aren't union members doesn't have a large base of dues-paying members to fund its programs and politics.

What it does have now is a deal with GoHealth, a private insurance exchange, to guide its members and would-be members into health plans available under the law better known as Obamacare. Working America, in turn, will receive a piece of the commission paid out by insurance carriers for each plan issued.

The Affordable Care Act strategy is Working America's most promising funding lead yet, said Karen Nussbaum, the group's executive director.

"The non-collective bargaining organizations are all dependent on unions or foundations. None of them are within a whisper of becoming self-sufficient," said Nussbaum. "So this becomes a really rare opportunity to achieve that."

Nobody has to use a private broker to obtain health coverage under Obamacare. People can simply go to HealthCare.gov or a state online exchange and shop for themselves. But Working America is betting that its members will appreciate the hand-holding of agents, who come at no extra cost, as they assess a complicated product in a confusing new marketplace.

That sort of assistance could be good for Obamacare, too. Outside brokers and agents were critical in helping early enrollment under the Affordable Care Act surpass expectations, with a lot of customers turning to one-on-one guidance to navigate the exchanges. For Working America, this is one way to get more people enrolled in Obamacare and more people enlisted in the labor movement.

According to Nussbaum, about two-thirds of the group's roughly three million members would qualify for some sort of subsidy under the law -- that is, if they lack employer-sponsored health coverage.

Nussbaum wouldn't say how much Working America expects to fill its coffers through the program, deeming that premature. The total amount could end up being fairly modest, considering that commission fees tend to be small on a per-policy basis and that Working America would capture only part of the commission going to GoHealth.

But Robert Laszewski, a health policy consultant and former insurance industry executive, suggests that the money could be significant depending on Working America's reach. He compared the arrangement to the brokering of health plans by AARP, the massive advocacy group for retirees.

"The amount per policy is very small. But if you look at the AARP, it adds up very quickly," Laszewski said. "You have to get into the hundreds of thousands or a million [policies] before it becomes seven-figure money. But maybe it's worth it to them."

Laszewski said such a program could have "added value" for some people looking to buy insurance on the exchanges.

"Obviously, anyone can go directly to the exchanges," he said. "Having said that, people still seem to have an appetite for going to professional counselors and brokers because this is really complicated."

Cem Varon, vice president for Chicago-based GoHealth, said the company's agents have no vested interest in steering customers toward particular plans since they are paid by salary and per-plan commissions. Many customers, he argued, can't get all the help they need through officially designated navigators under the Affordable Care Act.

"We are recognizing that a lot of these consumers need very specific help that requires a discussion," Varon said. "It really is about customer service and access to a licensed agent."

Even if the returns for Working America are a disappointment, any new source of outside funding would be welcome.

The underlying purpose of the group, which was launched in 2003, is to bring non-union workers into the labor movement. That mission is critical to organized labor as a whole, given that unionism has dipped below 7 percent of private-sector workers in the U.S., with few signs of an impending turnaround. Working America makes its home inside the headquarters of the AFL-CIO, which, according to Labor Department disclosure forms, devoted at least $9 million to it last fiscal year.

"You can't mistake dues-paying for power, but it's really hard to have power without dues-paying," Nussbaum said. "Creating a stream for becoming self-sustaining is the bête noire of all worker organizations outside of collective bargaining."

Despite its growth over the past decade, the group hasn't found a reliable revenue stream beyond its union benefactors. Nussbaum said Working America receives voluntary dues from about 18 percent of its membership, but that's not nearly enough for the group to stand on its own legs. Other non-union labor groups -- such as Restaurant Opportunities Center United, Retail Action Project and OUR Walmart -- similarly rely on big-brother unions and other progressive groups to keep them afloat.

Depending on how it goes, Nussbaum said Working America could extend the health program to some of its non-union labor allies. (Of course, not everyone within the labor community is pleased with the Affordable Care Act. Unions such as UNITE HERE have blasted the health care reform law for the damage they say it will do to the multi-employer health plans their members have.)

Though Nussbaum is cautious about any predictions -- "Maybe it doesn't work, who knows," she said -- she also has a hard time suppressing her excitement about the possibilities.

"While I've had a lot of promising things to say about moving to self-sufficiency, nobody has been able to figure it out yet," Nussbaum said. "We see this becoming a big, big deal in the next several years."

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