HOUSTON, Texas — There’s nothing like finding yourself on a stranger’s porch staring down a snarling pit bull to remind you of the benefits of Obamacare.
But that’s precisely where Mando Flores, an organizer with the Texas Organizing Project (TOP), found himself Tuesday as he canvassed a neighborhood nearby Houston’s Hobby Airport to let neighbors know that Obamacare’s exchanges were now open for business.
“If he’d attacked me,” Flores recounted after his close call with Killer, “at least under Obamacare I would’ve had insurance. And even if it were really bad, I couldn’t be discriminated against for a pre-existing condition!”
Flores is one of thousands of canvassers across the country who have been fanning out for weeks to spread the word, especially among low- and middle-income Americans, about how Obamacare’s exchanges work. With polls showing that as many as three-quarters of uninsured individuals don’t understand how Obamacare can help them, canvassers have their work cut out for them.
But if Flores’ efforts are any indication, Obamacare’s proponents can take comfort that once the landmark health law is understood, it could actually be popular.
ThinkProgress shadowed Flores around a mixed-income neighborhood in southwest Houston this week as he knocked on doors and greeted neighbors with the hustle of a first-time politician. Though canvassing is a notoriously difficult task, Flores has enjoyed a remarkable amount of success convincing people he’d never spoken with before that they could really benefit from Obamacare.
For instance, Flores helped a 61-year-old mechanic who can’t afford health insurance realize the benefits that Obamacare could offer him:
Texas is arguably the epicenter of America’s health care problem. Even as its own senator is shutting down the government in a quixotic quest to defund Obamacare, Texas has the highest rate of uninsured residents of any state at 22.5 percent. The problem is even greater in the Houston area, where more than one in four people are without insurance. Yet the state’s Republican-led government has refused to accept federal money to expand its Medicaid rolls, which would have extended coverage to as many as 1.5 million low-income Texans.
Attacking this problem by knocking on doors may seem old-fashioned. After all, we live in a time when many look to new technologies to solve society’s intractable problems. But, when the problem is the tens of millions of Americans who lack health insurance, a smartphone app is no panacea.
Atul Gawande, writing in the New Yorker this summer, cautioned against this notion that all we need to solve problems is the development of a “killer app.” To successfully spread important innovations, whether it’s proper sanitation in the developing world or navigating Obamacare exchanges here in the United States, what’s still most important is organizing and relationship-building.
That’s why canvassers are so crucial for Obamacare’s success.
“Going door-to-door is how you organize people, especially low- and middle-income folks,” Gabriel Pedreira, communications director for TOP, told me. “They don’t necessarily have the time or resources to go meet and organize down at Starbucks. You have to go to them.”
It’s the ripple effect of organizing that makes it especially powerful. Every business knows how important word-of-mouth advertising is, and the lesson is no less true with Obamacare. On the drive over, Flores recounted time after time when he’d given his phone number to someone he’d canvassed in case they had any questions, only to find himself soon being called by that person’s neighbors and relatives who’d been given his number and wanted his help, too.
After a canvass, Flores makes sure to call back anyone he spoke with to check in. He also lets them know about the next time there would be an event with health care experts who could help them sign up in the insurance exchange. TOP even offers rides to the event for those who need it. Go above and beyond their expectations, Flores explains, and they’ll be even more likely to tell their friends.
Organizing may not be as sexy as a hot new app, but it’s still the most effective tool Obamacare proponents have as they work to make the law’s promise a reality.