As Obamacare marketplaces open, sales pitch begins in earnest

When the federal healthcare marketplaces open Tuesday, hundreds of volunteers will fan out across the state urging colleagues, co-workers and students to investigate their healthcare options and sign up for insurance.

They’ll also probably share the story of someone like Rehman Khan.

Khan, 24, is a graduate student at Florida State University who recently had a cyst removed from his tailbone. The surgery should’ve cost $12,000, but Khan paid only $400.

Why? Because thanks to the new healthcare law, Khan can remain on his mother’s employer-sponsored health insurance until he turns 26.

“It was after 24 years of living and this painful experience when I realized that health insurance was not a privilege; rather it was a necessity,” Khan said.

To help spread positive messages about the healthcare law, Khan and others are forming small volunteer armies in Florida to help people both understand the law and navigate the process to acquire health insurance.

Khan linked up with a group called Young Invincibles, which is targeting younger Floridians who might not know they can remain on their parents’ health insurance or might need help to receive subsidies through the federal marketplace.

It’s important work, especially in Florida, where Gov. Rick Scott has attempted to bar official federal healthcare “navigators” from county health departments.

Young adults are a key demographic. The federal government needs them, a relatively healthy group, to purchase insurance and offset the costs of caring for older, sicker people.

In Florida, the reluctance of Republican state leaders to embrace the law is contrasted against the relatively high number of uninsured Floridians. One national organization estimated that 1.7 million people in Florida are eligible to receive subsidies to purchase insurance.

Enroll America, perhaps the highest-profile pro-health care group, has an extensive ground campaign taking shape in Florida to tackle the “awareness gap” about the law. It’s being led by veterans of the President Barack Obama’s administration and campaign team.

“I think there is a lot of noise that is going out there, and our focus is just the facts,” state director Nick Duran said.

The organization has 27 paid staffers in Florida and more than 1,000 volunteers. It hosts panel discussions and conducts neighborhood walks where members knock on doors and pass out information about the insurance exchange.

Enroll America has received permission to set up information tables in Tampa Bay-area Sears and Kmart stores. “We’re not going to engage in any policy discussions or debates,” Duran said. “That’s not our role. Our focus is on education and awareness about these new affordable coverage options.”

The group, however, came under fire this year after the New York Times reported that Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, encouraged business executives to contribute to Enroll America.

Another group, Americans United for Change, also has ties to the Democratic Party and has aggressively pushed back against GOP attacks on the healthcare law.

Jackie Lee, the group’s top Florida liaison, said her organization is working with other groups to spread the word about the law’s provisions and encourage people to sign up for coverage. But it will also continue an aggressive media campaign to highlight GOP opposition.

“The benefits are the law, the benefits are working, and we don’t understand why they are trying to take that away,” Lee said.

That is not to say that every grassroots organization focused on the healthcare law sees it in a positive light. Generation Opportunity, a conservative organization for young people financed by Charles and David Koch, plans to spread an “Opt Out” message at college campuses this fall.

The group made national headlines in September when it released a Web video that depicts a “Creepy Uncle Sam” showing up in the exam room of a nearly naked woman who received insurance under Obamacare.

“Our strategy for this campaign was to come up with creative videos that would get the message across to young people that they have an important decision to make Oct. 1, and they actually could opt out of Obamacare,” said national president Evan Feinberg, a former aide to U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

The group also plans to shadow the movements of Enroll America, offsetting the pro-healthcare messages with its criticisms. Generation Opportunity wants people to see the law as something they would be better without: more money, more jobs and more freedom.

“We certainly are looking at Florida because there are a lot of young people that are going to be making this decision and we want to reach out to them directly,” Feinberg said. “We want to be where they are because we want young people to hear both sides of the story.”

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