Politics at play as Ohio's health exchange nears enrollment date

Sydney Schmitt, right, and Raven Fuel review turf before canvassing the Coventry neighborhood in Cleveland Heights.
Sydney Schmitt, right, and Raven Fuel review turf before canvassing the Coventry neighborhood in Cleveland Heights.
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Sydney Schmitt is on the front lines of a national effort to help people understand the new healthcare marketplace.

Carrying clipboards filled with addresses of people who are likely to be uninsured, they are walking a neighborhood near Coventry Village in Cleveland Heights. Schmitt eagerly reaches out to Darnise Wynn, who is talking to friends in a front yard.

"Hi. I'm with Get Covered America campaign. Do you have a moment? We're just passing out lit… we're an informational campaign," Schmitt says. "So here's some lit. Just so you are in the loop about the coming changes thanks to the affordable care act, which goes into effect Jan. 1...

"I know what it is," Wynn says.

"Oh, awesome!" Schmitt responds.

Schmitt and other proponents of the Affordable Care Act have stepped up efforts in recent weeks to make sure that everyone knows about the law. And what it means for people without insurance. The nonprofit organization Enroll America has staff and volunteers like Schmitt on the ground in Ohio and nine other mostly red states. Enroll America's national president Anne Filipic stopped in Cleveland during a statewide tour last week to meet with faith leaders and those who run community clinics.

"Ohio happens to be a state where there are a lot of uninsured. A lot of people who can benefit from what's coming and a lot of folks who don't know the opportunities that are coming this fall," Filipic says.

On tour with Filipic was Trey Daly. He recently left his job as an attorney at Cincinnati's Legal Aid Society to become Ohio's statewide director for Enroll America. And he took a moment to describe the challenge the group faces in Ohio, where state leaders like Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor have openly opposed the law.

"We've heard some interesting things like, I thought we didn't have that in Ohio or I thought that was repealed in Ohio - Some basic kind of misinformation or a complete lack of information," Daly says.

The Affordable Care Act passed two years ago but in the past few weeks, there has been renewed sense of urgency among those in favor of the law and those against it. Sarah Dash, who is a research fellow and author at Georgetown University's Center on Health Insurance Reforms, is studying the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

"Enrollment is really, really critical to the success of the exchanges of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare as people call it," Dash says.

If all goes as planned, White House officials are aiming to sign up an estimated seven million individuals across the U.S by the end of March. Next year, people who don't have health insurance will pay a fine. Ninety-five dollars the first year and then rising to $695 or more annually for an individual in 2016. Still, even with the penalties, there is fear that enrollment will fall short.

"HHS and others who are trying to promote the benefits of the law and enrollment in the exchanges are really trying to move against a headwind… there are actually other campaigns out there if you will to actually encourage people not to enroll," Dash says.

One such campaign, spearheaded by the conservative activist group Freedomworks, has been urging young people to burn fake Obamacare cards - there's really no such thing, but the symbolism is meant to convince young adults not to sign up for insurance. More recently, there's a campaign to defund the Affordable Care Act - waged by Heritage Action, the activist arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Republican Congressman Ted Cruz of Texas recently spoke at a Heritage Action-sponsored town hall meeting. The group has been holding similar events in cities around the country, including one in Columbus just last week that drew more than six hundred people.

Dan Holler, a national spokesman for the group, says that now - with one month before the exchanges open for enrollment - is the time to stop federal health reform.

"What separates this moment from all the others that we've seen in the past is open enrollment starts on Oct. 1. The Obama administration says Oct. 1 is the beginning of Obamacare and for those of us who oppose the law and those of us who don't want to see it become an entrenched part of American life, now is the time to take action," Holler says.

Meanwhile, back in Cleveland Heights, Schmitt says she's planning to canvas throughout the fall. This coming weekend, Enroll America plans a second big push in Ohio's major cities, including Cleveland. Volunteers like Schmitt will be out once again to knock on doors.

"We have lots of turf to cover, so you have to start somewhere," she says as she knocks on a door.

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