What’s in a number? That depends on who you ask.
If you’re a Democrat the number 106,815 represents a figure that fell well short of expectations. If you’re a Republican, the number 106,815 represents a calamity that validates your previous talking points regarding a piece of legislation that your party has officially made its Waterloo. If you’re an independent, the number 106,815 represents a discussion point for future bipartisan discussions. However, if you happen to be one of the 106,815 that has been able to purchase health insurance thanks to the Affordable Care Act, then that number means something entire differently to you:
The difference between life and death.
As political pundits on both sides of the aisle spin the first batch of enrollment numbers to suit their narrative, what is ultimately lost in the shuffle is the stories of the 106,815 individuals who have successfully enrolled during the first month of open enrollment for President Barack Obama’s landmark piece of legislation according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. These are people who have mostly used the state exchanges to enroll. One-third of them are from California. New York has the second most enrollees and red state Kentucky came in fourth with over 5,500 enrollees. There are scattered enrollees from all fifty states. There is no “typical” enrollee. Their age ranges, ethnicities, and life experiences vary greatly. No two stories are the same.
One thing they do share: Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, they have now gotten a new lease on life.
As someone who has twice gone without health insurance for short periods of time, I can honestly say that you live a different life not having health insurance. You drive slower on the freeways and avoid congested areas. You are extremely careful at the gym or avoid going altogether. You watch what you eat and avoid going out to restaurants with friends. You get worked up over a single sniffle for fear that it might eventually lead to a doctor’s visit. You do everything slower and more methodically than you previously did. You essentially move at half speed for fear of anything bad happening to you.
The vast majority of people who recently received health insurance thanks to the Affordable Care Act aren’t like me. They have always had to struggle, many of them for their entire lives. Whereas I had to give up a few trips to the gym, road trips, and dining out, people without health insurance don’t even have those options in the first place. They work multiple shifts at multiple jobs. They have to take public transportation to and from work. They have spouses and young children to support and take care of. They don’t have the option of moving in with family if things get rough. They have been forgotten by society and are seen as “parasites” by the right.
For the first time in their lives, many of the people mentioned above now have access to affordable health care. Some, like Gail Roach, a Pennsylvania woman with Type 2 diabetes, will end up paying as little as a dollar a month. A single dollar spent to change an entire person’s life. A single dollar spent to provide safety and security to a person and his or her family. A single dollar spent to finally feel like your endless hard work has meant something. A single dollar spent to now be able to afford medicine, care, and hospital services for you and your family for the very first time.
These are the people that the Affordable Care Act will benefit the most. It won’t benefit most of us who have insurance through our employers. It won’t benefit government officials who have government health care. It won’t benefit senators from Texas who have health care provided through a spouse’s Goldman Sachs health insurance policy. It will be people we walk past every day in our everyday lives. We see them on the bus. We see them at our jobs doing work we often consider “beneath” us. We see them at fast food restaurants. We see them greeting us at the entrance of Wal-Mart. These are the people whom the Affordable Care Act is truly helping, the segment of society that has been ignored and written off for the previous fifty years.
It is because of this that we won’t hear their story. The media won’t interview them. The Republican Party won’t even acknowledge their existence. And yet, they are there becoming the driving force behind the most significant piece of social legislation in a half-century. Word will spread of their success, but not on Facebook or Twitter. Rather, their story will spread in neighborhood markets, at thrift stores, on the street corner, and in church. The working class in America in 2013 is extremely tight-knit. They know that they are playing a rigged game in a system that is designed to have them fail. They know that the Affordable Care Act is the first opportunity they have had in a generation to finally enter the game and show exactly what they can do.
As of now there are “only” 106,815 of them. To me, that number sounds like one helluva start.