Ex-CMS staffer buoys ObamaCare

Ex-CMS staffer buoys ObamaCare
© Greg Nash

Lori Lodes arrived at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) at a critical juncture for ObamaCare.

It was September 2014, approximately two months from the start of the second open enrollment season for the federal insurance marketplace. Technical glitches and crashes plagued the initial rollout of HealthCare.gov in 2013, frustrating consumers when they tried to shop online for health coverage. The headlines, such as  “How long to fix Obamacare tech problems? Long” and “ObamaCare’s launch looked even worse from the inside,” painted an ugly portrait of this core element of then-President Obama’s health-care law.

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“We had a lot to prove to the American people,” Lodes, who ran outreach and public education for ObamaCare’s marketplaces until March of last year, said in a recent interview with The Hill.

Within her first two weeks, she had written a seven-week plan detailing how the CMS would undo the public doubt left after the first open enrollment period. They began to make progress that second year, Lodes said.

Since leaving the administration, Lodes and other Democrats have come to believe that the Trump administration is actively working to sabotage the Affordable Care Act and health coverage gains made under Obama.

The White House has moved to shorten ObamaCare’s enrollment period, cut its advertising budget by 90 percent and reduced by 41 percent funding for outside groups assisting with sign-ups — all while pushing Congress to repeal and replace the law.

So, Lodes and Joshua Peck — who also helped oversee past enrollment efforts — launched a group called Get America Covered in early October. They recruited the help of a handful of other Obama administration officials in the hope of filling what they see as an advertising and outreach void left by the Trump administration. 

“We pulled the team back together from the previous years because we didn’t have much running room,” Lodes said. “We had to get up to speed very quickly, and so it was easy to plug people in to the roles that they had had previously and have them engage again.”

The group has become a “connective tissue” of sorts, Lodes said. It gives businesses, advocates, faith leaders, health departments and other stakeholders the information they need to promote open enrollment. It helps local groups publicize events to sign up for insurance and has partnered with celebrities and purchased digital ad-buys to spread the word about HealthCare.gov. 

“We really did build a foundation that typically the government has played in previous years that would not have happened otherwise,” Lodes said. “I think we’ve also done a lot to really make sure that people are getting the facts.”

But time is running out.

On Friday, the 45-day window to buy health coverage on the insurance exchanges will end. It’s half as long as in previous years, which advocates say will likely significantly dampen enrollment.

About 3.6 million Americans had purchased plans as of Dec. 2, which is roughly 650,000 ahead of a similar point last year. But roughly 9.2 million signed up at the end of the last open enrollment season, making it hard to see the numbers meeting that this year.

But Lodes said enrollment has been better than expected and has “defied all of the efforts to make sure that it wasn’t successful.”

Lodes started working in the health-care sphere nearly 15 years ago. She first tackled the issue as a consultant for the Service Employees International Union while working on a campaign to bring the issue of affordable care into the national conversation during the 2004 presidential election, when surveys showed voters were more focused on terrorism, Iraq and the economy.

She also spent time at the liberal group Center for American Progress, helping organize amicus briefs in support of ObamaCare when the law was winding its way through the court system, as well helping oversee the communications team for Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonCohen once teased Hillary Clinton about going to prison. Now he's been sentenced to 36 months The Hill's 12:30 Report — Cohen gets three years in prison | Fallout from Oval Office clash | House GOP eyes vote on B for wall Contest offers 'Broadway play and chardonnay' with Clinton MORE’s presidential campaign last year.

Compared to working at the CMS, Get America Covered’s outside effort to boost enrollment has faced an uphill battle.

For one, the group of six doesn’t have the dozens of staff they would at the CMS or the power that comes with the government, Lodes said. It’s hard to break into a media environment where politics recently have been crowded with GOP tax-reform efforts, immigration policy and the threat of a government shutdown, among other issues.

Also — they simply got a late start.

“We launched on Oct. 4. Open enrollment starts on Nov. 1, ends on Dec. 15, so I think probably the thing that we have run up against more than anything is time, is that we just got this started too late and didn’t have the resources we would need to have an impact the way we wanted to,” Lodes said.

She added: “Specifically, we were not able to do television advertising, and we know that’s the No. 1 driver of enrollment.”

But just months ago, health care was one of the top issues roiling Capitol Hill — and Lodes was actively involved in that fight, too.

For the first eight months of the year, Republicans zeroed in on attempting to repeal and replace ObamaCare, which they have long argued is fundamentally flawed, leading to increased premiums and stifled competition.

During the repeal-and-replace effort, ObamaCare defenders were tirelessly working to keep the law alive from one congressional recess to the next.

“We were very, very focused, every waking minute of what can we do to slow this thing down,” said Lodes. At the time, she was serving as the campaign manager of Protect Our Care, a pro-ObamaCare coalition.

Throughout her efforts, Lodes said she has heard story after story from people who didn’t have access to the health care they needed. She specifically mentioned a mother of two boys who, years ago, was denied coverage by an insurance company after having a cesarean section. 

“Those sort of stories stay with you,” she said, “and you want to do something to fix it.”