Northern Utah beneficiaries laud Obamacare as U.S. lawmakers debate its future

Wednesday , July 26, 2017 - 5:15 AM

TIM VANDENACK, Standard-Examiner Staff

OGDEN — As the U.S. Senate debates the future of Obamacare, Margi Lebold sees the potential consequences in stark terms.

“I can’t help but look at it in terms of how many people will die,” said the Ogden woman. She relied on health care coverage acquired via the Obamacare marketplace in 2014 and 2015, after retiring but before she turned 65 and could access Medicare.

GOP senators on Tuesday voted to start debate on the future of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare — whether to repeal and, perhaps, replace it with something different, something more pared back. Some lawmakers pushing for change worry, in part, about the cost of Obamacare and, more philosophically, that the federal government is taking on more responsibility than it should in providing health care.

For those like Lebold who have benefitted from Obamacare, however, President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul has served a vital purpose — giving them access to affordable, quality health insurance. If not for the Obamacare marketplace — the array of health insurance plans available via an online exchange, subsidized by the feds depending on an applicant’s income level — Lebold likely would have gone without after retiring at the age of 62.

In all, 197,187 Utahns signed up this year for health coverage via the Obamacare exchange, according to U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services data, up from 175,633 in 2016 and 140,609 in 2015. Obamacare defenders worry they and others could lose their coverage or no longer be able to afford it, depending on how the Senate debate evolves. In Weber County alone, 12,489 signed up for coverage this year via the exchange while another 18,064 signed up in Davis County.

“I would’ve been uninsured. At 62, that’s scary,” Lebold said, mulling her options had the Obamacare exchange not existed when she retired. Buying private insurance, by contrast, would have wiped out the bulk of her monthly pension because it’s so expensive.

Graeme Abraham of West Point, who acquired insurance via the marketplace from 2014 through September last year, shudders at the possibilities had he gone without, unable to secure something affordable. “If something catastrophic would’ve happened, I think bankruptcy would’ve been my only option without insurance,” he said.

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He had been practicing law at the time, working, alternatively, on his own and in a small law firm that didn’t provide insurance. As is, the coverage he got through the Obamacare exchange helped, most significantly, in giving his wife access to health care while pregnant with the couple’s child.

Obamacare may need some fixes, Abraham thinks, but he watches the fierce Senate debate over its future with a wary eye, in part because it’s been such an intense focus for so long. The notion of just repealing Obamacare without a replacement gives him particular pause.

“With as many times as they’ve tried so far, maybe they need to step back and give it some time,” Abraham said, alluding to lawmakers’ prior efforts — all unsuccessful — to halt Obamacare. “It seems like they’re in a rush.”

Abraham now works for the Utah Occupational Safety and Health Division, part of the Utah Labor Commission, and gets on-the-job insurance.

‘Really quite evil’

In a worse-case scenario, Lebold speaks of the sick and infirm dying prematurely if Obamacare is repealed, unable to afford care and treatment. She worked as a Medicaid client advisor for the Utah Department of Health before retiring and is attuned to the health care debate.

“I’ve been really cringing. I think it’s really quite evil. I think there are going to be so many people dying,” she said. On the flip side, she says the Obamacare provision eliminating lifetime caps on the health coverage for the sickest “has saved so many lives.”

Luis Saucedo doesn’t go as far as Lebold. He’s a navigator with the Midtown Community Health Center in Ogden and helps lower-income people seeking health coverage analyze their options. But he says Obamacare has definitely been a boon, giving part-time employees, low-wage earners and others who work but don’t get employer-supplied coverage access to health insurance.

“It’s been a huge blessing for them just because they had no other options,” Saucedo said. Instead of relying on emergency room treatment only when ailments reach a critical stage, for instance, beneficiaries have been able to see doctors before things get too serious.

Sariah Crowton, a navigator who works out of Ogden with Alliance Community Services, thinks U.S. lawmakers need to think of those who rely on Obamacare for affordable health care coverage.

“They need to put themselves in the shoes of others,” she said. “If they didn’t have the great insurance they have, maybe it would be eye-opening.”

Clarification: Due to a source error, a photo caption misidentified Graeme Abraham’s children. We apologize for the error.

Contact reporter Tim Vandenack at tvandenack@standard.net, follow him on Twitter at @timvandenack or like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/timvandenackreporter.

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