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Several former White House staffers have found a new way to promote Obamacare: They're spending millions of dollars in se...
Several former White House staffers have found a new way to promote Obamacare: They're spending millions of dollars in secret corporate and union cash, and they're harnessing grass-roots tactics to some of the biggest names in the health care industry.
Organizing for Action, the successor to President Barack Obama's presidential campaign, and Enroll America, a group led by two former Obama staffers that features several insurance company bigwigs on its board, are planning to unleash the same grass-roots mobilization and sophisticated micro-targeting tactics seen in the 2012 campaign.
Instead of getting people to vote, they're trying to get people to buy insurance.
If the coalition is successful, 30 million uninsured Americans will get health coverage and the now-unpopular law that Obama's team pushed through Congress and defended at the Supreme Court could go down in history alongside lauded national institutions such as Medicare and Social Security.
But if large numbers of younger and healthier Americans don't sign up for coverage this fall alongside the older and sicker ones, the whole thing won't work.
The challenge is real: The White House has not been able to penetrate the confusion and skepticism about the law in the nearly three years since its passage. Numerous polls have shown that people still don't know what's in the law, or how it could benefit them.
So it is both fitting and ironic that -- for perhaps the most significant battle in the war over Obamacare -- the president's allies are completely setting aside their qualms about the unlimited cash they once railed against. They plan to use it to unleash the 20 million-address strong email list of Organizing for Action, to hire up to 100 people at Enroll America and to flood television, radio and social media with ads this fall. They even hope to go door to door, walking people through the sign-up process.
"This is going to be run like a political campaign," said Families USA Executive Director Ron Pollack, who helped conceive and fund Enroll America in 2010 and is chairman of the board.
It's clear Enroll America is a priority for Team Obama. The group received a blessing from Organizing for Action at a private gathering of Democratic donors during Inauguration weekend. Its new president, Anne Filipic, just resigned as the deputy director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, where she had worked under Organizing for Action's director Jon Carson. Its new managing director, Chris Wyant, led the ground game in Ohio for Obama's reelection campaign.
The private effort is relying on many of the tools, donors and operatives that were pivotal to Obama's reelection, but also streams of cash -- including secret and corporate money -- that Obama once eschewed.
"There is a long list of organizations that want to see this effort be successful, including a whole set of organizations on the progressive side, and also so many entities on the private sector side and local and community-based organizations," said Filipic.
That long list includes many of the corporate groups who would benefit from millions of people signing up for insurance. Enroll America's board includes senior officials from Blue Shield of California, Kaiser Permanente and Teva Pharmaceuticals.
Enroll America's advisory council is a cross-section of the most influential health-related organizations, companies and unions in the country, including: AARP, Aetna, CVS Caremark, the NAACP and the Service Employees International Union.
The money push began Inauguration weekend when hundreds of Obama donors, Democratic operatives and corporate representatives gathered at Washington's Newseum for a meeting of Obama's National Finance Committee.
"There is a whole long list of fights we won in the first term that we have to implement now," Carson, OFA's director, said. "First among those is the challenge and opportunity to get 40 million Americans on health care insurance through the implementation of the Affordable Care Act."
Carson called Enroll America the "group that's going to be leading the charge on health care implementation."
Filipic, who worked on Obama's 2008 campaign and then at the Democratic National Committee, praised the assembled donors. It was "due to the incredible work you and many people did" that the Affordable Care Act passed, she said, adding, "Enroll America is going to be a major ACA enrollment campaign."
Filipic's appearance at the Newseum meeting seemed to be partly intended to make Obama donors comfortable giving to Enroll America, some attendees told POLITICO. The group saw its budget soar from $1 million when it was founded in 2010 to $3.9 million in 2011, according to tax filings. It would not say how much it raised last year, nor whether it planned to disclose its donors.
Families USA, which worked closely with the White House to get the health law passed, also saw its revenue increased dramatically -- from $4.3 million in 2010 to $11 million in 2011, according to its tax filings -- as it became clear that the fight over Obamacare wasn't dying down, but continuing in Congress and the courts, and then to the states and the regulators.
Other big money White House allies expected to play major roles in the Obamacare fight include the corporate-funded trade group Business Forward, the think tank Center for American Progress and the liberal donor network Democracy Alliance.
Business Forward, which is run by Democratic operatives and leveraged industry support to help pass the fiscal cliff deal, is planning something similar on Obamacare, including February meetings on the West Coast between business leaders and Obama Health and Human Services officials. It also sponsored the Newseum conference where Filipic pitched Enroll to donors, and at which leaders from CAP and the Democracy Alliance appeared, along with Obama campaign manager Jim Messina and former President Bill Clinton.
But leaders of Enroll, Families USA and Business Forward say their groups will be entirely non-partisan and that they're only interested in good policy, with Filipic and Families stressing that their goal is simply to get insurance coverage to as many people as possible.
White House spokesman Bradley Carroll declined to comment on whether the White House was directly involved in Enroll, which has been active for a while but with a much lower profile.
"The administration is committed to helping Americans get access to affordable health care, and appreciates the experience, energy and commitment of groups like Enroll America working toward the same goal," he said.
Organizing for Action did not respond to questions about its list or relationship with Enroll America. But generally, Filipic said her group will lean on "the strength of the Obama organization" and conceded "absolutely there are comparisons there and frankly, we learned a lot of lessons about how to do it well."
Asked whether the group would be able to access Organizing for Action's vaunted email list, which POLITICO has learned includes as many as 20 million addresses, Filipic said "that would be a question for OFA more than for us."
The right isn't just ceding the battle, either. Despite spending significant resources unsuccessfully trying to kill Obamacare in Congress and then in the Supreme Court, deep-pocketed conservative groups, like the Koch brothers-backed Cato Institute, have been urging states not to implement Obamacare's health insurance exchanges and Medicaid expansions.
Adversaries have also focused on niche pieces of the legislation, notably through the dozens of suits filed against the contraception coverage requirements. Conservative think tanks and analysts pump out studies and forecasts that insurance premiums will skyrocket, making it more of an "Unaffordable Care Act." America's Health Insurance Plans, the trade group, has waged a viral campaign arguing that any increases in premiums in 2014 are the fault of the law, not the insurance industry.
But advocates say covering the uninsured will help control rising health care costs. Insured people are more likely to take care of small health problems in a doctor's office before they become big expensive ones in an emergency room. There won't be as much inefficient cost shifting to pay for the uninsured.
And once people have a "benefit," it's hard for politicians to take it away -- or for Republicans to renew efforts to repeal it if they win control of the Senate or the White House.
But to get the benefit, people have to sign up.
Enroll America's strategy is to advise state leaders and target the uninsured themselves to help them navigate the new system, which includes expanded Medicaid, tax credits to subsidize insurance, and new online marketplaces called health insurance exchanges.
It plans to use microtargeting, just like the Obama campaign did, to identify where the uninsured live, neighborhood by neighborhood. So far, its demographics data shows that the uninsured are typically young adults, male, from communities of color or low-income areas. Some have had bad experiences with insurance companies in the past, finding that the policies were too expensive or hard to understand.
Enroll has also found that the uninsured are more likely to take action if they can talk with a real person. Similar to the Obama campaign, the group hopes to work with volunteers to knock on doors and walk people through the process.
"We certainly know from recent successful electoral campaigns -- but also from different successes in the private sector -- that we have to really develop a granular list, in this case of the uninsured, and study what motivates them," Filipic said. "That will be an important part of the work we do."
They're dealing with a public that just doesn't really know what's in the law. Enroll America focus groups found that 78 percent of the uninsured have no idea that they could be eligible for help obtaining coverage as soon as Oct. 1 of this year.
Business Forward -- which is funded by corporate members that have a major stake in implementation, including AT&T, Comcast, Dow, Ford, Google, McDonalds, Microsoft, Verizon and Walmart -- intends to bring to bear the cache of the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum.
"During the health care debate, we brought officials around the country to meet with business leaders," said Business Forward president Jim Doyle, who worked in the Clinton administration. "We're interested in doing more on implementation because a lot of the business leaders we work with are interested in it," he said, but he stressed, "We haven't spoken to Organizing for Action or Enroll America about joint programming yet. We wouldn't rule it out."
Sister Carol Keehan, president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association and a member of Enroll's board of directors, said having coverage expansion in law won't do any good if people don't sign up for it.
"We knew that enrollment was critical if we were going to help the people the act was explicitly targeted to help," said Keehan, whose organization contributed $100,000 to Enroll.
And she thinks the public will respond. "At heart, the people of this nation are kind and caring and they sympathize with people who have three children and have no insurance for them," she said.
Byron Tau contributed to this report.
This article first appeared on POLITICO Pro at 10:28 p.m. on January 31, 2013.