How Enroll America is connecting city restaurant workers with Obamacare

800px-Chestnut_Street_(Philadelphia)It’s a recent Wednesday afternoon, and Neil Rickett is hitting Center City bars, doing his best to steer clear of anything that could be deemed political.

Rickett is a field organizer at Enroll America’s Pennsylvania chapter, a nonprofit group leading efforts to help Americans get enrolled in the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. A former bartender, server and manager, Rickett is in charge of finding restaurant industry employees who are either uninsured or underinsured in Philadelphia—which include, according to some estimates, between 75 and 80 percent of those workers.

Twice a week, Rickett takes long, three-hour walks—from 2 to 5pm, since those are restaurant and bar dead hours—around city neighborhoods, heads into those spots, asks to speak with a manager and, eventually, employees, about health care.

Right now, we’re in Bru, the relatively new, loud bar that recently opened on Chestnut Street. Rickett asks to speak with Todd, a manager he recently connected with by phone.

But Todd’s not in. So Rickett shakes several hands and leaves some health care literature with a plan to head back so he can eventually have a more organized visit, give a presentation to the employees, whom, he promises me, are eager to learn more about the Affordable Care Act.

Rickett, a burly, spectacled man who just moved to Philly three weeks ago—and settled in Manayunk—won’t come out and endorse the ACA. That is, even though he just finished working for Organizing For Action, President Obama’s political action committee dedicated to pushing the administration’s programs. This is different. Enroll America is meant to be completely non-political.

And even as we make small talk during our stroll through Center City and Old City—discussing topics like Medicaid expansion, Gov. Corbett’s Health PA, states refusing to comply with the law’s exchange programs—Rickett casually, yet politely, refuses to really say anything, often changing the subject to statistics about who has and doesn’t have health insurance in Philadelphia, or how he learned early on not to drink water on his twice-weekly, three-hour canvases.

“The good thing about this job is that we’re not indebted to anyone,” he says. “There’s no politics involved. It’s just about connecting people with the health care plan they need.”

Now we’re in Dandelion, Stephen Starr’s Rittenhouse English Pub-style restaurant. He asks at the bar if he could speak to the manager. He can. He tells the manager what’s up, and we’re led to the back kitchen area, where about 10 cooks are cleaning or preparing foods. There’s a large plate of red steaks—I don’t know the animal it comes from—in front of me. Numerous staff have to squeeze past me with large plates and trays to get in and out of this small area.

“Listen up, motherfuckers,” the Dandelion manager tells his kitchen staff in good humor, “There’s a guy here to talk about health care. By law, you are all going to have to have this stuff, so if you do not talk to these gentlemen, you’re going to have to figure it out another way.”

Rickett introduces himself and Enroll America to the staff, all of whom continue working as he speaks. One cook asks him specific questions that he can’t answer.

“I just do a bridge between you and getting enrolled,” he says. “If you’re interested, we do enrollments here in Center City. You can come out and talk to somebody who can actually give you the different plans.”

“But I thought that’s part of the Act,” says the cook. “Employers have to give their employees health care?”

“To be honest, that’s not really true,” says Rickett. “But like I said, all we do is find people who are interested and get them to the next step.” He leaves some cards and pamphlets with the cook.

This is not an anomaly for Rickett, he says. Statistics he’s seen as part of the job show that about 68 percent of people are interested in learning more about the new health care law. Another 12 percent become interested once you start talking to them about it.

It’s just that he can’t, or won’t, answer some of the specifics on peoples’ minds when he comes across them—things like, “What’s wrong with the website?” And “Doesn’t my employer have to cover me now?”

Neither is it strange to run into someone like Dustin, a tall, well-groomed bartender at Dandelion, who’s interested in keeping some Enroll America literature at the bar. “Of course,” Rickett says, when asked if he can leave some.

Dustin’s wife is a teacher, he says, so he gets his insurance through her plan, “but I’m pro-Affordable Care Act,” he says. “I’m always offering my two cents here.”

Outside, I ask Rickett what the cook’s deal will be when he figures out his health insurance, because I’m genuinely interested. Will that guy have to jump on the federally-set up exchange in Pennsylvania? Or will he be able to find a plan through Dandelion? Or do cooks more often qualify for the Medicaid expansion programs?

“To be honest, I don’t know,” he says. “I try to stay out of the specifics because it’s not what we do. When people have those questions, and I want to get them answers, the best they can really do is get to an enroll event.”

I like Rickett; he seems cool—but I don’t believe everything he tells me. I think the former Obama campaigner who’s made a career working in liberal politics knows all 1,200 pages of the Affordable Care Act by heart. Being that he’s worked in liberal politics throughout his relatively young career and moved to Philly from LaCrosse, Wisconsin, specifically to work on health care, he must know. But he’s good at his job.

And he’s right to change the subject and not even humor me about this stuff. Enroll America has already been under fire for engaging in partisan politics. In November, a group with the IRS filed a complaint against Enroll America, claiming it violated its tax-exempt status when a video was released showing an Enroll America communications director in Texas admitting he works in partisan politics—and that EA employees are “all Obama people.”

Admittedly, that video was put together by Project Veritas, the group founded by James O’Keefe, a right-wing operative who was caught selectively editing his secretly-taped videos and was accused of attempting to seduce a CNN anchor for a secret tape and attempting to date-rape a fellow conservative activist.

In Philly, the local office of the group’s Pennsylvania chapter recently partnered with Mayor Nutter’s office, City Council, the Free Library and others. But what the partnerships entail is a bit vague. Rickett doesn’t get into specifics about that, either.

When I ask Enroll America communications director Paydon Miller about it, he notes: “When uninsured Philadelphians now enter a local government office, city staff will greet them, offer information about the Health Insurance Marketplace, details on the insurance plans available, as well as resources to connect with a local navigator that can help them get covered.”

At an enroll event, says Rickett, some of the 240,000 uninsured people around Philadelphia will be hooked up with certified application counselors who can answer their specific questions about the law. They’ll figure out which plan works best for their income level and health. That’s what he tells a manager at Misconduct Tavern, too, even as the guy asks really specific questions with answers Rickett must have at the tip of his tongue.

Yesterday, January 1st, coverage began for those who signed up by December 23rd. The date to have health insurance before a penalty goes into place is March 31st, but Rickett expects Enroll America to be in town well past then.

“We’ll be here after March 31st,” he says. “It’ll be the same job, except there won’t be enrollment at that time. It’ll be more consumer outreach—the same things we’re doing now—but we’re also getting people to enroll events as well.”

@RandyLoBasso on Twitter

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