The Star-Ledger

Obamacare To The Rescue In Atlantic City

The Star-Ledger — Sunday, September 5, 2014

By Tom Moran | Star-Ledger Editorial Board

All six Republicans in Congress who represent New Jersey have voted over and over to repeal Obamacare.

So I have a request for them: Go to Atlantic City and explain those votes to the 8,000 casino workers who are losing their jobs, and in most cases, their health insurance.

These poor souls are lining up every day outside a packed room on the fourth floor of the Atlantic City Convention Center, where they are signing up for coverage under Obamacare in droves.

"We had about 200 people the first day, and the numbers are continuing to climb," says Maura Collinsgru of New Jersey Citizen Action.

A single mom with two young children arrived on the verge of tears.

She had lost her job after a decade and her health insurance went with it. She had breast cancer a year ago and was terrified she wouldn't be able to get the drugs she needs to keep the cancer at bay.

"We helped her out and she was so grateful," says Robin Stockton, one of a few dozen workers helping these folks navigate the system. "She cried and cried, and hugged us."

It was like that all week and it will go on this week. The navigators, a motley mix of volunteers and government contractors, were taking names for a waiting list. They had two dozen computers to work with, all of them busy, all day.

"Obamacare might not be a cure for everything in the health system, but for the first time losing your job does not have to mean losing insurance coverage," Collinsgru said.

That is the uniquely American double-whammy. We are the only major country that attaches health coverage to a job. And it happened mostly because of a historical quirk: In 1943 the War Labor Board ruled that the war-time wage freeze did not apply to fringe benefits. So employers lured workers by offering health insurance.

You can see the perverse impact in Atlantic City today as the casinos shed about one-quarter of their remaining work forces. No job means no insurance.

Obamacare is a salvation for them. The bad news for the critics is that it is working. The rough start was just a stumble.

In July, the New England Journal of Medicine released a progress report that undermined almost every Republican argument. It found that 20 million people have obtained coverage under Obamacare, most of whom did not have coverage before this. It found that a healthy mix of young and old are signing up. It found modest price increases for younger and healthier people, offset by lower prices for the sicker and older, who now have a right to buy coverage. The puffed up prediction of an explosion in health costs was bogus, too.

A survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found most people who bought policies through the exchanges are happy with their coverage, and most feel their plans are a good value.

All this despite a sustained campaign to undermine the law by Republicans. Twenty-three states have refused to expand Medicaid coverage, leaving federal money on the table in a fanatic protest against activist government. Only a few Republican governors decided to play ball.

The good news is that Gov. Chris Christie was one of them. The federal government is paying for 100 percent of the Medicaid expansion and will scale back to 90 percent in a few years. Christie is a conservative fellow, but not fanatic enough to turn down a sweet deal like that. He took the money and expanded coverage.

In Atlantic City, nearly half those signing up have extremely low incomes and got coverage through Medicaid, Collinsgru estimates. The rest bought policies on the subsidized exchanges.

The point is that both groups fell into a safety net that is working. They lost their jobs, but not their health coverage.

Sen. Joe Vitale, chairman of the health committee, notes this isn't just about health. It's about money.

"If they have a home and a family car, in a pre-Obamacare world that would all be at risk if they had a medical emergency," he says. "Before Obamacare, that was the No. 1 reason for personal bankruptcy."

What has always driven me nuts about the critics of Obamacare is that they don't have another option. They talk about deregulation and health savings accounts, but every study finds that would make just a small dent in the army of uninsured Americans.

That's why I would like to see our Republicans in Congress come to Atlantic City and look these people in the eye.

What would they do to help — offer a lecture about the virtues of small government?

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