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As Obamacare marketplaces open, sales pitch begins in earnest

TALLAHASSEE — When the federal health care marketplaces open today, hundreds of volunteers will fan out across the state urging colleagues, co-workers and students to investigate their health care options and sign up for insurance.

They'll also probably share the story of someone like Rehman Khan.

Khan, 24, is a graduate student at Florida State University who recently had a cyst removed from his tailbone. The surgery should've cost $12,000, but Khan paid only $400.

That's because the new health care law lets Khan stay on his mother's employer-sponsored health insurance until he's 26.

"It was after 24 years of living and this painful experience when I realized that health insurance was not a privilege, rather it was a necessity," Khan said.

To help spread positive messages about the health care law, Khan and others are forming volunteer armies to help people understand the law and understand how to get insurance.

Khan linked up with the Young Invincibles, who are targeting Floridians who might not know they can remain on their parents' health insurance or might need help getting subsidies through the federal marketplace.

It's important work now that Gov. Rick Scott has tried to bar federal health care "navigators" from county health departments.

Young adults are a key demographic. The federal government needs this relatively healthy group to purchase insurance and offset the costs of caring for older, sicker people.

The reluctance of Republican state leaders to embrace the law is in contrast to the high number of uninsured Floridians. One national organization estimated 1.7 million people in Florida are eligible for insurance subsidies.

Enroll America, perhaps the highest-profile pro-health care group, has an extensive ground campaign tackling the "awareness gap" about the law. It is led by veterans of President Barack Obama's administration and campaign team.

"I think there is a lot of noise that is going out there, and our focus is just the facts," state director Nick Duran said.

The organization has 27 paid staffers in Florida and more than 1,000 volunteers. It hosts panel discussions and conducts neighborhood walks where members knock on doors and pass out information.

"We're not going to engage in any policy discussions or debates," Duran said. "Our focus is on education and awareness about these new affordable coverage options."

The group, however, came under fire this year after the New York Times reported that Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, encouraged business executives to contribute to Enroll America.

Another group, Americans United for Change, also has ties to the Democratic Party and has pushed back against GOP attacks on the health care law.

Jackie Lee, the group's top Florida liaison, said United for Change is working with other groups to encourage people to sign up for coverage. But it will also continue an aggressive media campaign to highlight GOP opposition.

"The benefits are working, and we don't understand why they are trying to take that away," Lee said.

Not every grass roots organization focused on the health care law sees it in a positive light. Generation Opportunity, financed by Charles and David Koch, plans to spread an "Opt Out" message at college campuses this fall.

The group made national headlines in September when it released a Web video that depicts a "Creepy Uncle Sam" showing up in the exam room of a nearly naked woman who received insurance under Obamacare.

"Our strategy for this campaign was to come up with creative videos that would get the message across to young people that they have an important decision to make Oct. 1, and they actually could opt out of Obamacare," said national president Evan Feinberg, a former aide to U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

The group also plans to shadow the movements of Enroll America, offsetting the pro-health care messages with its criticisms. Generation Opportunity believes people will have more money, jobs and freedom without the law.

"We certainly are looking at Florida because there are a lot of young people that are going to be making this decision and we want to reach out to them directly," Feinberg said. "We want to be where they are because we want young people to hear both sides of the story."

Contact Tia Mitchell at tmitchell@tampabay.com.

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As Obamacare marketplaces open, sales pitch begins in earnest 09/30/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 1, 2013 10:59am]
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