Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who covers criminal justice, terrorism and the courts for WNYC. She found her way into public radio after practicing law for five years, and can definitely say that walking the streets of New York City with a microphone is a lot more fun than being holed up in the office writing letters to opposing counsel.
With only four days left before the March 31 enrollment deadline, the White House is kicking into high gear trying to round up more Affordable Care Act enrollees – and Louisiana got special attention Thursday.
Why? Enrollment in the federal healthcare exchange there has lagged behind other states and, perhaps as important, citizens are getting bombarded with anti-ACA ads as Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu gears up for a tight race in November.
As part of its push to promote the ACA hard in the last days before the deadline to enroll, the White House has been inviting the media to dial into a series of conference calls to highlight positive anecdotes in certain states under the new healthcare law. Thursday's call showcased Landrieu's backyard, and a 34-year-old New Orleans waitress named Tierney Brinkman, who found a lump in her breast when she was 19.
"Until the Affordable Care Act, my mammograms were outrageous. I'd end up spending about $500 in a day – and that is not something that I can afford," said Brinkman.
Brinkman said for years she was unable to get decent health insurance because her lump was considered a pre-existing condition.
"I don't even know how to begin to explain or describe what it's like to think that you might end up with a disease that is a killer that you can't afford," said Brinkman.
Other states the White House has spotlighted in similar conference calls the last few weeks include Texas, Arizona, North Carolina, Florida and Georgia.
"These calls are just one more aspect of our outreach on the importance of ACA enrollment," said a White House official, when asked how the administration was selecting the states on which to focus during these calls.
One reason Louisiana may have made the list: enrollment in the state has been sluggish and Republicans are determined to use the healthcare law to get voters to sour on Landrieu.
President Obama announced Thursday that more than six million people have signed up for health insurance through the state and federal exchanges. But the administration's habit of citing the national total obscures the fact that in some individual states – like Louisiana – the insurance market isn't doing too hot.
Data compiled by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health policy research group, shows that more than 45,000 in Louisiana have signed up on the exchanges. That amounts to only 9.3 percent of all the people in the state who are eligible in the state to participate in the healthcare exchanges.
In the U.S. overall, about 15 percent of eligible individuals have signed up on the exchanges.
Meanwhile, any White House efforts to promote the ACA must be done delicately in Louisiana, where the President is unpopular and where aveteran Democratic senator is facing a really close race.
"No amount of spin can hide the fact that Obamacare led to more policy cancellations than it did new coverage for the uninsured in Louisiana," said Jason Dore, executive director of the Louisiana Republican Party. "Senator Landrieu has doubled and tripled down on Obamacare and now the Louisiana voters are ready to hold her accountable for its epic failure."
The Koch-brothers-funded group Americans for Prosperity has poured millions into the 2014 midterm elections. Landrieu has been a favorite target in the group's political attack ads, which have been focused on telling Louisianans how much their families have suffered under Obamacare.
"I think in Louisiana we're caught up, unfortunately, in a political vortex," said Shreveport mayor Cedric Glover,a Democrat who also participated in the White House's Thursday conference call. "A lot of the misinformation ... out there for lots of folks in places like Louisiana to consume is actually not based in fact, but is more driven by politics."
White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett has also been making the rounds on Louisiana radio shows this week.
"However unpopular the White House is, it's important that they assist Senator Landrieu in changing the narrative regarding the Affordable Care Act," said Joshua Stockley, a professor of political science at the University of Louisiana at Monroe.
Come November, Stockley said, it's still possible for the Affordable Care Act to recede as an election issue.
"If the positive news outweighs the negative news – this could absolutely neutralize the Affordable Care Act as a campaign weapon," said Stockley. "It's only March. So we have seven full months of campaigning. One or two weeks can be an eternity in electoral time."