John's large belly gave his Jimi Hendrix shirt a 3D-like quality. When I asked for his age he said, “Somewhere between birth and death, that's all you need to know.” I'd guess probably around 48. I spoke to him at a bar and music venue on Hollywood Boulevard called Loaded.
I don't know much about the Affordable Care Act—what even the newspapers now call Obamacare—but I need to have an opinion, so I went to some bars in Hollywood to ask people to explain it to me. Maybe someone at the bars had tried to sign up. There’s been a lot of talk about the failure of the websites of the new online exchange programs. Maybe, I thought, I could find someone with firsthand experience: input from real people out on the town of Los Angeles, California, USA. John was the first person I spoke to.
“I made Obama win back in 2009,” John said. “It was my strategy they implemented that won the Iowa Caucus.” I declined to ask for verification of this impressive credential. Instead, I told him I assumed he supported Obamacare. “Hell no!” he said. “It's just a ploy to get all our information through online registration, the NSA, Homeland Security, and all that shit.” A valid point! Between WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden, trust in government is at a real low. Who's to say the government won't use such information against us?
John had a lot to say, particularly regarding topics such as the Federal Reserve, The Clinton Family, and Watergate, but I needed to keep on moving if I was going to get a well-rounded understanding of the ACA. I read an article by NPR's David Kestenbaum in which he said the greatest risk to the ACA is what's known as the “Death Spiral.” Kestenbaum explained the circumstances of the death spiral:
Most of the people who sign up for an insurance plan are sick. It costs a lot to take care of them. So the next year, to cover the high health costs, the insurance company raises its premiums. But then only really sick people sign up. So the insurance company has to raise prices again. Eventually, the insurance gets so expensive that no one buys it, and the whole system falls apart.
And in order to offset that, you need lots of young people who don't have dementia or clogged arteries to sign up for the program. So as insightful as John was, I thought I should get some younger people’s input at Loaded—see if they plan to sign up for ACA.
I approached a woman with pink cheetah print tattoos on her shaved scalp. I asked Tara, 35, if she was going to sign up for the ACA. “I'm thinking about it," she said. What are you thinking about? “Well, it's better than what I have now.” What do you have now? “Nothing.”
Her two friends hopped into the conversation. Kahrma, 26, said, “I'm not getting it.” I asked Kahrma if she was already covered. “No, I don't need healthcare and I don't vote and I don't want to have anything to do with the government.”
I looked to their other friend and inquired if she would sign up for the ACA.
“I just want dental—can I get that?” I told her I didn’t know. She nodded and took a sip of beer.
I looked into it later. According to the American Dental Association: “About 17.7 million adults could gain some sort of dental coverage through the ACA. However, given that many states have only limited or emergency dental benefits through Medicaid, only 4.5 million adults will gain extensive dental benefits through Medicaid. About 800,000 adults will gain dental benefits through the health insurance exchanges.”
These initial conversations suggested many people were just having a drink, waiting to see what happens; I thought maybe I should do the same. Some guys that looked like they’d been doing a lot of waiting around were at the front patio of the bar. They had gauges working some decent-sized holes into their ears and one guy had gone with the leather vest, no-shirt look. I asked if they were going to sign up for the ACA.
“What's that?” I tell them it's Obamacare. “What's that?” You've really never heard of Obamacare? I asked. It's the new government program to provide affordable healthcare coverage, I told them. “Oh man, we're Canadians, we've had that for years. Free healthcare, right?” Well, no, not exactly free. “How much?” It varies, I said: some people can get it for free, others need to pay a couple hundred dollars, or more. The Canadian rolled his eyes and shook his head.
Discouraged, I decided to try a different bar. The Room had more of a DJ lounge scene. I asked a server at the bar, Rachel, 26, if she intended to sign up. I couldn’t hear her because “Pass the Dutchie” was playing so loudly, so I asked again. “I think I already have it," she said. In fact, she’d “had it for awhile.” But I thought you could only sign up starting this month? No, she said, that's not the case.
Confused and discouraged, I went over to Dalton, 35, and asked if he could make any sense of this ACA. “Honestly man, I'm not even thinking about that until we fix the deficit,” he said. I asked what the problem is with the deficit and he said the U.S. is spending way more than we have and it's only a matter of time before it all blows up in our face and the country goes broke. Now I was confused and discouraged and also worried. I asked Dalton if the deficit was the reason he will decline to get healthcare through ACA. “No, I work for Paramount Studios, I'm in a union and we already have healthcare.” Oh, I said, what do you do at Paramount? “I draw Spongebob Square Pants," he said. Really? “All day, everyday,” he said. He sipped his beer.
Dalton seemed to have it all figured out.
I’d met some really nice people, but I didn't feel like I was any closer to understanding the Affordable Care Act. So I tried one more bar, right next door to The Room. I didn't see any signage but I could tell by the bass spilling onto the street that there was something going on in there. This club had tons of laser beams and people dancing like robots. I approached a woman dancing with her girlfriend. Excuse me, I'm sorry to bother you, I said. Are you into Obamacare? She leaned in. “No way, I'm a nurse, I don't want to get a chip put in me," she said. Then she poked the fleshy space between her index finger and thumb, signaling the location where the chip would be implanted. I thought, this is someone with experience in the medical field and she is telling me a chip is going to go in a somewhat believable location? Sounds credible. Between what John said about the NSA, what Dalton said about the deficit, and what this nurse had said about microchips, I had to admit the Affordable Care Act was beginning to frighten me.
Everyone was dancing and having a good time and I was confounded. I tried to play it cool, sipping a vodka soda by myself at the bar. It was about 2 a.m. and I still didn't have a better understanding of the ACA. All I knew was that I wanted someone to talk to. I went up to a girl and asked her if she was going to sign up for healthcare. “Is this a pickup line?” she asked. I told her I didn't think it was, but I really just didn't know anymore.
Matt Yoka is prone to make documentaries but has been known on occasion to direct a music video or write an article. In the summer of 2013, he took a media hiatus to ride a bicycle from New York to California. He is now back in the swing of storytelling things. He lives in Los Angeles, CA, USA.