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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Engaging Uninsured Cynics of the ACA


On a blistering cold Chicago night in November 2013, I met with Lorena, a 25-year-old uninsured Mexican-American bartender whose income fell below $18,000.  Lorena belonged to a group that health policy experts refer to as “newly-eligibles,” single able-bodied adults without children living in poverty who now qualify for Medicaid thanks to the Affordable Care Act.

Lorena could have enrolled herself with relative ease. At the time, outreach efforts for the ACA were in full swing. In her home neighborhood of Pilsen, health navigators, insurance brokers, and nonprofit organizations were at soup kitchens, schools, taxi stands, and social service organizations spreading word and enrolling thousands. Our conversation, however, revealed something surprising.

“Do you plan on applying for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act?” I asked sitting across from her at a south loop coffee shop near the bar she worked.

“No,” she bluntly replied.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Mainly because I don’t trust government. I think anything they’re going to be putting out is flawed.”  
“What makes you so distrustful?” I asked.

“My friend got these really strong stomach pains and almost fainted so I took her to the county hospital. We were there sitting for hours in the emergency room! The nurses were all hanging out at the desk giggling and laughing and talking to each other drinking their coffee and my friend is bent over like this [Lorena hunches over as she speaks] ready to pass out! I yelled at one of them, “are you gonna take care of her?” They came back to me laughing [telling me], “I’m sorry, we’re actually really professional.”

“What happened to your friend?”

“She was really dehydrated and had a bad urinary tract infection. She spent the night at the hospital which cost her $2300.”

“That experience made you distrustful?”

“Yeah, it’s terrible. When I look at the actual doctors [at the county hospital], they’re very professional and educated but everything else is downhill. With these county clinics, the staff sucks! It’s like they’re hiring just anybody.”

Being Uninsured a Conscious Decision

From November 2013-April 2014, I interviewed 45 uninsured adults like Lorena (between 21 and 35, single, without children, low-income) as part of an ethnographic study of the uninsured in the age of the Affordable Care Act. To my surprise, two-thirds refused to enroll or even inquire about the ACA because of their cynicism in government or the quality of health care provided by Cook County. For people like Lorena, their lack of health insurance did not stem from a lack of outreach or access. Being uninsured was a conscious decision to distance themselves from government and health care agencies.

As outreach efforts continue in Cook County and elsewhere, it is important for health care professionals to remember that the ACA is just one of many arms by which government shapes the lives of the uninsured working poor. For Latinas like Lorena, many of whom have undocumented family members, the ACA is part of the same government body that is deporting family members. For many of my Black respondents, the ACA was seen as part of the same government body whose police force is excessively using deadly force against Black citizens.

Although Medicaid enrollment has exceeded Cook County’s expectations, nearly 600,000 remain uninsured. It’s possible that people like Lorena, with distrust and cynicism toward government and health care, will be the most difficult to enroll.

Lorena’s story highlights the importance of bringing more nuance and strategy to ACA outreach efforts. For cynics of the ACA, simply informing them of their options is not enough to persuade them to enroll. Instead, cynics need to have their opinions validated (no matter how inaccurate or outlandish they might appear) and be empowered to enroll.

Convincing the Skeptics

Two weeks after my interview with Lorena, I observed Abram (a health navigator) put these face-to-face outreach strategies to work during his interaction with Joyce, a 32-year-old cynical and uninsured Black woman. It was family fun night at a Boys and Girls Club in Pilsen. Joyce brought her niece to the event and was sitting at a table eating a sandwich when Abram approached and introduced himself.

“Hi, I’m Abe.”

“Nice to meet you, I’m Joyce.”

“I’m here working for an organization and we’re trying to sign people up for the ACA.”

“Really?” asked Joyce.

“Yes, do you have health insurance now?”

 “No.”

Abe pulled out a bright yellow pamphlet and said, “That’s ok. I can assist you with enrolling. In the end, it is completely up to you to make that final decision if you want to enroll in anything at all. I can start you off to see what’s out there. There’s Medicaid, which is completely free public assistance. With the new Medicaid, insurance companies can no longer deny you for pre-existing conditions.”

Joyce raised her eyebrow asking “Really?”

In response, Abe raised both hands in the air to gesture he meant no harm stuttering “I, I, I, don’t want to make any promises because, obviously, we have to see what plan you are eligible for…”

Joyce interrupted, “But that really means a lot to me because I’ve been denied lots of things in the past.”

Abe continued, “I’m going to leave you with my information [hands her his business card]. [Abe pulls out another sheet of paper] This is a list of documents that we are going to need in order to fill out your application, and I can actually sit down with you, with your permission, to go through the entire application. That is something you could do by yourself if you wanted to, or I could sit down with you and assist you.” One week later, Joyce made an appointment with Abe and enrolled.

Like Lorena, Joyce was skeptical that the Affordable Care Act would benefit her. In my interview with Joyce, she shared frustrating stories of seeking medical treatment for health problems only to be told she was ineligible for assistance.

Abram, however, never discounted or diminished Joyce’s skepticism. Nor did he make any promises that he could not keep. Instead, he validated Joyce’s concerns and reminded her that she was the one in control of the interaction, that she could walk away at any time.

Abram did not have to persuade Joyce to trust government or even health care providers. He just had to convince her to trust him, and he was successful by validating her concerns and empowering her.

The Outreach Road Ahead

As the ACA enters its third year, it is now entering a phase where those with the easiest access have enrolled and where many of the remaining uninsured are the hardest to reach. These include many uninsured adults whose negative experiences with government or health agencies have formed the basis of their outlook toward the ACA.

With face-to-face outreach strategies designed to validate and empower the low-income uninsured into enrolling, organizations conducting outreach for the ACA may be able to continue closing the cracks in the Illinois health insurance safety net. As Joyce said in recalling her interaction with Abe, “He didn’t try to sell me. He just say, once we do this it’s strictly up to you just because you talk with us and give us your information doesn’t mean you have to sign up, the ultimate decision is up to you.”


Robert Vargas
Assistant Professor of Sociology
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Robert is currently conducting research on the Affordable Care Act in Chicago, and the publications from his health care research are available at his website www.robvargas.com.

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