August 12, 2013 at 1:00 am

Michigan becomes Obamacare battleground

Fight focus is Medicaid expansion, state health insurance exchange

As the nation approaches a milestone under Obamacare this October, Michigan is emerging as one of 10 states considered key for the law’s success nationwide.

Oct. 1 marks “Opening Day” of a key component of the Affordable Care Act — health insurance exchanges, which are Internet-based marketplaces where consumers can price-shop for low-cost health insurance.

The success of the federal health care law — which aims to make health care affordable to millions of uninsured Americans — will be gauged in large measure on whether people flock to the exchanges for coverage.

National groups on both sides of the health care issue have boots on the ground in Michigan. Some organizations are canvassing neighborhoods to educate people about the insurance exchange, while opponents are holding community events and running TV ads to speak out against the health care law.

It’s another wrinkle at a time when Michigan already is embroiled in debate about expanding Medicaid under Obamacare, which could add nearly a half million people to the government health insurance program.

The GOP-controlled House voted in favor of the expansion, which is supported by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. But the measure has been held up by the Republican majority in the Senate.

“Michigan is definitely a battleground,” said Annie Patnaude, deputy state director for the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, which will begin running radio ads opposing the Affordable Care Act at the end of August.

“We did a whole Upper Peninsula tour — a seven-stop tour, and we’re planning events in Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids and Oakland County.”

It is the intent of the Affordable Care Act to insure millions of Americans by expanding Medicaid and subsidizing low-cost insurance on the health exchanges. If it falls apart in Michigan and other states, it would affirm opponents’ contention that Americans don’t want government health care.

Two national progressive groups — Americans United for Change and Protect Your Care — have formed a partnership to combat opponents of the health care law in Michigan and the swing states of North Carolina, Texas, Ohio, Wisconsin, Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Louisiana. The states either have ongoing battles over Medicaid expansion, such as in Georgia and Florida, or high numbers of uninsured like in Texas, said Lauren Weiner, national spokeswoman for the partnership.

“We’re looking to states where we think enrollment is really important,” Weiner said.

“And Medicaid expansion is a key component we’re going to push on when these legislatures come back in session.”

Obamacare supporters have pledged an aggressive educational campaign to inform people about the exchanges, and have vowed to put Republicans on the defensive about why they don’t support the act.

“We’re going to put some faces to this issue both at the state and federal level,” said Darci McConnell, Michigan spokeswoman for the partnership.

“We’re going to encourage citizens to hold (Republicans’) feet to the fire and get them to stop trying to repeal this law, and get them to focus on educating the public.”

Pharmacies school patients

Opponents of the health care law are also shifting into gear. Last week they called for a boycott of CVS Caremark in response to the company’s July 25 announcement that it is rolling out a company-wide information and outreach program “to help customers gain access to critical health insurance marketplace information.”

St. Paul, Minn.-based Citizens Council for Health Freedom urged consumers “to stand up against CVS Caremark for pushing an unpopular and destructive health care plan that is bad for the country.”

“We do not want (the government) to take over health care, and we see the exchange as the apparatus of the takeover of health care,” Twila Brase, the group’s president, told The Detroit News.

“We do not support anything that would make the exchange successful.”

In a statement to The Detroit News, CVS Caremark spokesman Mike DeAngelis said the pharmacy chain “remains committed to responding to our customers’ questions about their health and helping them make informed decisions about their health care, including new health care coverage options.”

DeAngelis said more than two-thirds of patients recently surveyed by the company about their knowledge of the Affordable Care Act said they expect pharmacies to offer health insurance information. He said the chain will allow “navigators” — government-funded guides who will help people sign up for insurance — into their stores.

“Providing information about new health insurance coverage under the new health care law is in keeping with our purpose of helping people on their path to better health,” DeAngelis said.

Reaching out to consumers

The national group Enroll America already has staff on the ground telling Michiganians about the health insurance exchange. They’re going door-to-door and visiting fairs and other community events.

“There are 1.2 million uninsured in Michigan, and 78 percent are unaware of the insurance marketplace opening Oct. 1,” spokesman Shawn Dhanak said, citing the group’s own polling results.

With 10 paid staff in Michigan, Enroll America is recruiting volunteers to staff phone banks and host informational house parties. Last Saturday, the group had a statewide day of action when volunteers knocked on 1,500 doors, he said. They’ve also reached out to individual consumers at state fairs, flea markets and other community events.

“We are not doing the actual technical assistance of helping people to sign up. That’s going to be up to our partners, the navigators,” he said.

“We’re holding these one-on-one meetings with individuals who are interested in knowing what’s going on ... uninsured consumers who stand to benefit.”

KBouffard@detroitnews.com