Miami-Dade County

Taxi drivers in Miami-Dade eye Obamacare with interest and caution

Flamingo. Hurricane. Super Yellow. The taxis rolled by, headed to the holding lot Wednesday evening at Miami International Airport where hundreds of drivers queued up for jobs. Marie Pinchinat had been working 15 hours straight but needed three more fares to cover her cab rental cost and break even.

“I feel sick,” Pinchinat admitted as she rested under the parking lot shelter with a plate of swordfish and rice. Recently her blood sugar had shot up. “I think it’s because I don’t get enough sleep,” she said.

But Miami-Dade’s taxi drivers — there are about 5,000 registered in the county — are unlikely to have health insurance, with Pinchinat among them until recently. According to an ongoing Florida International University research study of the drivers, fewer than 25 percent of those surveyed in Miami-Dade had insurance.

That made them prime candidates Wednesday for Enroll America outreach workers, who were trying to educate uninsured workers about their healthcare options under the Affordable Care Act.

With little more than two weeks left before the ACA enrollment period ends, Daryll Banks and Luis Vasquez spent the afternoon circulating among drivers who ply Miami Beach’s high-end hotel trade. Many of their attempts to start discussions about Obamacare were met with a polite “I already have it” or “I’ll take the information from my friend.”

But Vasquez wasn’t discouraged. “We call it the woodwork effect. One guy tells another guy what we’re doing. He may be a more trusted figure than we are,” he said.

The director of the 1,200-member New Vision Taxi Driver Association, Raymond Francois, has been talking up Obamacare every chance he gets.

“A lot of them don’t earn enough to qualify for the tax credits because 82 cents on the dollar of what they make goes to expenses,” Francois said.

A driver for 20 years, 61-year-old JosephZephraim is one who may fall into the Obamacare coverage gap — a healthcare no man’s land for people earning too much to qualify for Medicaid but too little for subsidized health insurance . Recently Zephraim was hospitalized for pneumonia but returned to work three days ahead of doctor’s orders to avoid losing his apartment. “I have to work. I have to eat,” he explained

But many others do qualify for Obamacare’s tax credits, like Pinchinat. By working seven days a week, she earned enough last year to qualify for a subsidized health plan with no monthly premium and dental coverage for $18 a month.

Emanuel Donatien is another who said his 12- to 16-hour shifts lifted his annual income above the federal poverty level. Uninsured for 27 years and paying down a $6,000 negotiated bill from his second prostate cancer surgery, he has an appointment to enroll in an Obamacare health plan before the March 31 deadline. Besides the generous subsidy he is likely to get, the plan will cover follow-up treatments for his preexisting condition.

New Visions’ Francois — who drives a cab on weekends and works as an insurance agent for a Fort Lauderdale insurance company during the week — became certified to sell Obamacare plans when the healthcare marketplace opened in October. He said he’s filling out about 10 Obamacare applications a day from taxi association members and their referrals.

For those who’ve enrolled in plans, Francois said problems remain. Some clients are still waiting for insurance cards two and three months after enrolling. Others who don’t have cars aside from the leased taxi that provides their livelihood can’t find a doctor in their area.

The insurance companies’ websites show plenty of doctors in all locations, but when his North Miami drivers enroll in a subsidized plan, they’re told they have to go to Hialeah or Kendall, Francois said.

As the taxi shifts changed Wednesday evening, Frantzcia Thenor, a Creole-speaking healthcare navigator working for the Epilepsy Foundation of Florida — one of the agencies helping to sign up South Floridians — spoke with the drivers at the airport.

“Many of them say they have insurance, but I think they’re hesitant to talk,” Thenor said.

As she handed out fliers explaining Obamacare’s basics, drivers who had been watching her from a distance approached and began taking them. A man who at first told Thenor, “I signed up already,” stepped away from the table and quietly asked her, “Where can I get this Obamacare?”

This story was produced in collaboration with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.