Knocking on Doors for Obamacare

Johnny Ordaz hadn’t heard about the Affordable Care Act before the stranger knocked on his door. But it was welcome news to the 60-year-old Oxnard resident whose wife lacks health insurance.

“She has to do something, but we were in the dark about it,” he said last week, standing on the porch of the south Oxnard home he shares with his wife, daughter and grandson. “This helps us.”

Hundreds of paid canvassers and volunteers fanned out across the state over the last two weeks to tell residents such as Ordaz about the new health-care law and encourage the uninsured to sign up for coverage.

The canvassing, which stretched across 12 counties from San Diego to the Bay Area, was organized by California Calls, a nonprofit that aims to change the state’s voting electorate.

In a twist on health-care advocacy, the group is using the new law as leverage for its activism. After telling registered voters about Obamacare, the community organizers asked residents for their contact information and whether they’d like to participate in community forums.

“We came at it because it’s an opportunity to have a political discussion, but what’s great is at the end of the day we can tally up the number of people who are going to get health care and didn’t have it already,” said Karla Zombro, field director for California Calls. “With this, more than anything else we’ve ever done, we can see we’re impacting people’s lives immediately.”

The canvassers talked with more than 100,000 registered voters statewide between Oct. 14 and Nov. 10. Nearly 80,000 said they support the Affordable Care Act and about fourth of those, or 20,000 people, said they planned to sign up for health benefits made available through the new law. After explaining the new law, the canvassers pointed those who were interested in signing up to the state’s health insurance website, coveredca.com.

“We get a little bit of everything — not everybody likes it — but pretty much in general people are happy they’re getting the information,” said Aracely Preciado, Oxnard community organizer with CAUSE, or the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, which partnered with California Calls to do the canvassing in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. “We’re helping bring a little bit of clarity.”

The canvassers focused on low-income neighborhoods and those with high percentages of minorities, such as south and east Lost Angeles. Organizers spent a week or two calling registered voters before hitting the streets to talk to those they hadn’t yet reached. They focused on many of California’s most populous counties: Alameda, San Francisco, Santa Clara, Fresno, Tulare, Kern, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Riverside San Bernardino, Los Angeles and San Diego.

Pairing up in teams of two, canvassers wove across south Oxnard on Nov. 6, walking between taco trucks and Spanish-language billboards to clusters of homes.

“Have you heard about the Affordable Care Act?” canvasser David O’Leary, 18, asked an elderly couple who answered the door at their home, near Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme.

The answer, as it was at many houses, was no.

Speaking Spanish, O’Leary explained the basics of the new law and handed out Spanish-language flyers. But when he asked if they’d be willing to give their contact information or attend a community forum the following week, they closed the door.

Despite spending at least 10 minutes at the door only to have it closed in his face, O’Leary was unfazed. “I guess they got what they needed,” the Ventura College student said. “Usually it does take longer like that, when there’s more than one person, but that’s a good thing.”

While most of the residents have been receptive to the canvassers, others get angry when they hear the word “Obamacare,” Zombro said.

“The super right-wing narrative is a lot more in the air in places like the Central Valley, and we get a lot of kooky questions like, ‘I heard on the radio that they’re going to put microchips in us,’” she said. “But throughout the state the level of support for Obamacare is very, very high, even in the more conservative places.”

During a pre-canvassing meeting last week, Ingrid Castro said she’s talked with a few people who say they’re already planning to boycott the new law.

“I know someone told me, ‘I’m just going to get fined and it’s going to be cheaper,’” said Castro, 25. “I’m like, ‘Before you do that, you should just get more information.’”

The issue has hit home for Castro, whose parents’ health insurance plan will be canceled next year, she said. “My family’s going to get kicked out, and I’m helping them figure out what to do,” she said. “I’ve become like the go to person because of what I’m doing for work.”

California Calls paid the approximately 300 canvassers $15 an hour for the work. About 700 volunteers also knocked on doors as part of the effort.

As farm-workers returned from the strawberry fields to a crowded south Oxnard neighborhood last week, canvasser Veronica Enriquez, 38, knocked on doors. “When I first started, I tried to stick to the script, but now I try to explain it in ways that I think they’ll understand, depending on who it is,” she said.

That strategy didn’t work on Daniel Hayes, 56, who answered the door at a small white house between railroad tracks and the ocean. “I don’t support it at all,” he said of the Affordable Care Act. “I think the whole country’s been lied to and the truth is not yet out about it.”

But next door, Ordaz, the retiree whose wife is without insurance, said he was thankful for the information. His wife, Penny Ordaz, 52, has high blood pressure and thyroid problems, and he’s been worried.

“She does have her health issues and I keep telling her she needs to take her medications,” he said, standing behind rosebushes and a child’s car-seat propped on the porch. “We didn’t know what to do.”

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