Healthcare

ObamaCare groups: If Trump won't, we will

Advocacy groups that support the Affordable Care Act are taking matters into their own hands.

With the Trump administration cutting back on advertising and outreach, outside groups are mobilizing for a massive, nationwide campaign for the next ObamaCare enrollment period. They say it's up to them to get the word out.

"Going into this year, whichever way you look at it, you don't have the support of the administration and, frankly, it's one that's actively trying to sabotage the efforts and make sure people don't get health insurance," said Katie Keith, steering committee member of Out2Enroll, a national group that launched in 2013 to help LGBTQ people enroll in ObamaCare.

"I'm deeply concerned about enrollment and reaching folks. We're going to do everything we can, and there's a lot of groups just as committed as ours, but I think it's going to be a challenging year."

For both supporters and opponents of ObamaCare, the stakes are high for the next enrollment season.

President Trump insists ObamaCare is a "failing" law that will soon collapse under its own weight. A significant drop in enrollment could bolster his case and help him persuade congressional Republicans to take another shot at repeal next year.

ObamaCare enrollment has been on a slightly downward trajectory. While 12.7 million people signed up for coverage in 2016, that number dropped to 12.2 million for 2017, 1.5 million fewer than the Obama administration had projected.

Democrats attributed the drop to the Trump administration's decision to pull $5 million in ads during the final weeks of open enrollment, when many people typically sign up.

The reductions to outreach for the 2018 enrollment period will be far more extensive.

The Trump administration recently announced it would cut ObamaCare's advertising budget by 90 percent; officials said the ads are no longer necessary because people already know about the law.

Additionally, the administration slashed the grant funding to state and local nonprofits that help people enroll, saying the "navigators" had failed to meet their enrollment targets in previous years.

Finally, the Trump administration cut this year's open enrollment period in half, from Nov. 1 through Dec. 15, giving people less time to sign up.

National advocacy groups like Out2Enroll say they are working overtime to fill the breach.

"Nothing comes close to making up for the loss of $90 million at the federal level, of course, but we're taking whatever resources we can and investing them," Keith said. Her group is planning to target LGBTQ people on Facebook and on dating apps.

Young Invincibles, another group that worked closely with the Obama administration on enrollment efforts, plans to spend more on paid digital advertising in several states, especially those most affected by the administration's funding cuts.

"We're putting more resources into that so we can hopefully reach more people and make sure they know about the deadlines and know the income-based tax credits are still available," said Erin Hemlin, the health care campaign director for Young Invincibles.

Young Invincibles will have staff on the ground in Texas, Virginia, Illinois, California and Colorado to help navigators and other local groups sign people up for ObamaCare.

"We're doing everything we can to provide as much support to these groups as possible," Hemlin said.

The group will also have an outreach manager based in Washington, D.C., to focus on other states that rely on the federal site healthcare.gov, including Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, Arizona, South Carolina and Ohio.

Young Invincibles also manages a connector website that helps people find local enrollment assistance and leads the Get Covered Coalition, which is made up of nearly 500 national, state and local groups.

The coalition existed during the Obama administration but has grown since Trump's funding cuts.

Community Catalyst, another group that worked closely with the Obama administration, recently received a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation's largest public health philanthropy.

In turn, Community Catalyst has awarded grants to groups like the National Urban League and Raising Women's Voices to do targeted advertising.

"We're really trying to fill in the void of lack of advertising and support to enrollment assisters," said Dara Taylor, director of consumer assistance.

Former Obama administration health officials who were responsible for overseeing ObamaCare's enrollment and marketing efforts are also getting involved.

A new group launched Wednesday, Get America Covered, will partner with celebrities, including actors Bradley Whitford and Alyssa Milano, to spread the word about open enrollment.

The group will also buy digital ads targeted to uninsured people, funded by online donations, and work with local elected officials and businesses.

"If the administration was committed to making sure people had the information they needed to sign up for health care, we wouldn't need to start Get America Covered," said Lori Lodes, who oversaw outreach, paid media and public education for three of ObamaCare's open enrollment periods.

"But people's lives are at stake, so everyone has to step up and fill whatever gaps they can so people get the health care they need."

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