WASHINGTON – President Obama carried his healthcare reform message directly to Latinos on Thursday, urging the members of that vast community to obtain coverage under the Affordable Care Act before the approaching March 31 deadline.
Speaking at a forum conducted at the Newseum in downtown Washington and broadcast over several Spanish-language media outlets, the president offered assurance to Latinos concerned that utilizing the newly established insurance exchanges could somehow lead to the deportation of undocumented relatives, asserting “I’ve got their back.”
“The main point that I have for everybody watching right now is, you don’t punish me by not signing up for healthcare,” Obama said. “You’re punishing yourself or your family if in fact there’s affordable healthcare to be had.”
Told about one individual in particular, a mother who expressed alarm that she could face deportation if she enrolled her children, who happen to be citizens with the health exchange, the president said she “should not be fearful.”
“There’s no sharing of the data from the healthcare plan into immigration services,” Obama said. “You should feel confident that if somebody in your family is eligible, you should sign them up.”
Obama carried his message to the Latino community at a crucial time for the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as “Obamacare.” A disastrous rollout of the program last October left enrollment lagging. If an insufficient number of individuals sign up for the program, financial problems could ensue, rendering the insurance pool unsustainable.
Under the law, individuals are required to obtain government approved health insurance policies to offset potential medical costs. Failure to do so could lead to a fine. To offset costs, the federal government, 15 states and the District of Columbia have established exchanges so consumers can pick-and-choose their policies. In some instances the government is providing subsidies to ease the cost burden.
The Obama administration has been targeting Latinos, traditionally one of the president’s most loyal constituencies and one that finds itself in need of healthcare coverage. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, Latinos are uninsured at a much higher rate than the U.S. population overall. About 16 percent of all nonelderly U.S. citizens and others lawfully residing are uninsured. Among Latinos, the total reaches 24 percent.
In all, about 10.2 million Latinos are eligible for the exchanges. Of that number 8.1 million – 80 percent – are thought to qualify either for tax credits to purchase coverage in the Health Insurance Marketplace, Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
But there has been a reluctance on the part of the community. Non-documented individuals in the country illegally are not eligible for Obamacare and Latinos already are wary about the large number of individuals who have either been deported or face deportation.
Obama sought to assure Latinos that signing on to Obamacare won’t bring immigration officials to the door looking for associates. But several people expressed suspicion nonetheless and the president was pressed several times about the number of deportations. Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest Latino group, recently referred to Obama as the “deporter-in-chief.”
The president told the audience that he has ordered immigration authorities to focus their efforts in deporting those who have criminal records or a history of gang activity. Otherwise there’s little he can do about the situation without congressional action to clarify the situation.
“Until Congress passes a new law, I am constrained as to what I can do,” Obama said.
Obama urged the Latino community to avoid waiting until the last minute to sign up for coverage, noting that if too many individuals delay until right before the deadline the enrollment website, Healthcare.com, could jam up. He said the deadline, which already has been extended once, will not be extended further.
The law is working well, Obama said, but more states – like Florida and Texas – need to act to expand Medicaid eligibility so that the less affluent can obtain coverage at limited cost.
The town hall was held a day after the Obama administration announced delays in implementing other parts of the law.
Obama found himself in hot water, and the target of criticism, when it was determined late last year that an estimated 1.5 million consumers with substandard plans could lose their coverage – this after the president had promised for months that “those who like their coverage can keep their coverage.”
The administration moved to permit those with substandard policies to keep them for another year. This week the White House extended that for an additional two years, to 2017.
Critics insisted the extension was implemented because the 1.5 million consumers in question could lose their coverage prior to the November election – complicating the political picture for the Democrats. On Thursday, Obama said a complex law like Obamacare simply requires a little “smoothing out.”
Regardless, the president said more than 4 million people have signed up for health insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act thus far and he is “very proud” of the achievement.
“In five years, 10 years from now, people will look back and say that this was the right thing to do,” he said. “And at that point the Republicans won’t call it Obamacare anymore.”
But the GOP is still working to make sure Obamacare doesn’t exist for another 10 years. This week the Republican-controlled House again attempted to derail – at least temporarily – the Affordable Care Act by passing the Suspending the Individual Mandate Penalty Law Equals (SIMPLE) Fairness Act, which provides everyone with a one-year reprieve from the individual mandate.
Obama already has granted a one-year extension to large businesses who, under the law, are required to provide health insurance to their fulltime employees. Republicans have argued that everyone deserves that extension.
“The president has unilaterally rewritten the law to give corporations a pass while leaving the rest of America on the hook for its costly mandates and penalties,” said House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
The proposal, expected to go nowhere in the Senate, “extends basic fairness to every American facing a penalty for opting out of this train wreck,” Boehner said. “If the president cannot even implement his own law, how can he ask struggling families to pay for it? The president owes all Americans the same consideration he has granted big businesses and he can start by calling on Senate Democrats to pass this measure so he can sign it immediately.”