To promote 'Obamacare,' some advocates leave out the Obama part

ATLANTA-“We never mention Obama,” says Riley Wells.

In Washington, talk of “Obamacare” is constant. Republicans created that term in 2009, looking both to heighten the political divide over the health care reform process and also because they argue the law’s official name, “The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,” inaccurately depicts a provision Republicans say will eventually increase health costs for millions of Americans. Democrats, including President Obama, accepted the moniker, at first with reluctance and now proudly.

But not outside of Washington. Many of the officials, most of whom are Democrats, who are trying to implement the Affordable Care Act are eager to avoid the term “Obamacare,” and all of its accumulated baggage. To them, one of the keys to the success of “Obamacare” is that it stops being “Obamacare” and turns into just another part of a broader health care system most Americans use without fully understanding.

So these officials are selling “Obamacare” aggressively, just without the Obama part.

WATCH Perry Bacon and Ezra Klein discuss the ACA and the GOP with MSNBC’s Thomas Roberts:
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When Wells’ group, Enroll America, which is touting the law in Georgia and nine other states, comes to someone’s house, they talk about “new health care options,” “subsidies,” “marketplaces,” and other less politicized phrases. They often get blank stares and confused looks, but they said that’s better than the political opinions that might arise if “Obamacare” was invoked.

In Kentucky, the state’s government has rebranded “Obamacare” as “kynect” (“pronounced “connect”), the entity the state created to run its health insurance program under the law.  (Its formal name is the Kentucky Health Benefit Exchange). Many in the state don’t know exactly what “kynect” is, but they know Obama, and only 38 percent of voters there backed him in last year’s election.  “Your Health Idaho,” the “Obamacare” entity in that state, emphasizes on its website that it is “designed, driven and controlled by Idahoans.”

When they are directly asked by residents if they are involved with “Obamacare,” officials in these states say yes. But they are intentionally downplaying the president’s role.

“We make it clear we are not going to argue the politics,” said Carrie Banahan, who is running “kynect” in Kentucky, “We don’t want to make it political.”

“We’re not doing this for exercise”

Enroll America is a national, privately-funded non-profit group designed to encourage Americans to sign up for health insurance plans under the law. (It has not released a full list of its donors, but has received money from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and its board includes several representatives from hospital associations and health insurers). The group is focused on states like Texas and Georgia that have large numbers of uninsured people. (Enroll America is not in Kentucky, which is operating “kynect” on its own, aided by federal funding that goes to state-based exchanges.)

Officially, Enroll is non-partisan. Unofficially, it is akin to the third stage of the Obama campaign, two campaigns (2008 and 2012) for him to get the chance to implement health care reform the third the actual implementation.

Enroll America’s staff, both in states and its national office, is full of ex-Obama aides. People who worked in the data team in Chicago on Obama’s 2012 campaign have joined Enroll and have used similar modeling to produce a list of people in communities around the country who are uninsured. The volunteers and field staff in the ten states are planning to repeatedly contact the uninsured until they obtain health insurance, the same way many of these staffers repeatedly knocked on the doors of people last year to make sure they voted.

But they try to avoid mentioning the president’s name in their work now.

Wells, who was on the Obama field staff in Ohio in 2012, is the organizing director in Georgia for Enroll America, tasked with recruiting a team of volunteers to go door-to-door and hand out pamphlets that direct people to go online so they can explore options under the new health law. So Wells is training the volunteers on campaign-style techniques, as many of them had no previous experience in door-to-door organizing.

“We’re not doing this for exercise,” Wells told the 12 volunteers in a meeting at an office park before they left to canvass on a Saturday afternoon earlier this month.  “This is real stuff, this is really changing people’s lives.”

Then, the volunteers left to go to the neighborhoods to which they had been assigned, many of which were overwhelmingly black. When the volunteers knocked on doors, per Wells’ instructions, they stuck to a script, emphasizing new health care options, a website called “getcoveredamerica.org” where residents could get more information, and a text message code for people to receive updates on their cell phones.

When a woman asked if the health insurance was free, the volunteer said it was “heavily subsidized” and directed her to the website.

The adherence to the script was consistent and in one way surprising: even with African-Americans, among whom Obama is extremely popular, organizers believe using the phrase “Obamacare” is less useful than simply talking about the law and its potential benefits for them.

“But what if it doesn’t pass?”

But if health care officials aren’t eager to talk about the president’s role in the new law in black communities in Atlanta, that avoidance is even more logical in Kentucky, a red state politically but one where about 15 percent of residents (more than 600,000 people) don’t have insurance.

At the Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown, a small town about an hour outside of Louisville, state officials last week set up a tent and booth with a sky blue awning advertising “kynect: Kentucky’s Healthcare Connection.” (Kentucky’s Democratic governor, Steve Beshear, is a strong supporter of the law, authorized the creation of “kynect” to run Obamacare’s implementation in the state and staffed “kynect” with 25 full-time employees.)

The officials gave out pamphlets, most of which avoided the phrase “Affordable Care Act” and none of which mentioned the president’s name, but did provide estimated costs for coverage under the law. More importantly, they handed out sky blue “kynect” tote bags that showed a picture of the sun shining above a group of the commonwealth’s residents.