Last Friday in Dallas’ Oak Lawn neighborhood, a former college football player, a global expert on walkable cities, a 57-year-old Ethiopian immigrant and a U.S. congressman gathered outside a Chinese restaurant. Facing a row of TV cameras and reporters, they took turns praising the new health insurance options available since Obamacare took effect, and urging their uninsured neighbors to enroll in a plan by March 31—the deadline to get health insurance before facing a tax penalty.
The press conference was part of a nationwide blitz in the weeks before the deadline, led by groups like Organizing for Action and Protect Your Care, which are trying to stoke enthusiasm for President Obama’s signature health care law, and encourage new insurance enrollment.
“I’m determined to do everything that I can to make sure that the Affordable Care Act is implemented successfully,” Congressman Marc Veasey said.
It’s a particularly monumental task in Dallas. From that press conference at Mr. Panda’s Restaurant and Bar, it’s just a few minutes’ drive north to George W. Bush’s ritzy Preston Hollow neighborhood. Just a few minutes to the south or west of Mr. Panda’s, and you’re in U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey’s Congressional District 33, home to more uninsured people than any district in the country.
It’s pretty well known by now that Texas has the nation’s highest uninsured rate, thanks in part to Gov. Rick Perry’s refusal to expand Medicaid coverage. One in four Texans lacks health insurance, too often turning treatable health problems into a death sentence.
Veasey’s district, a new one created in the latest round of redistricting, is a sort-of barbell-shaped expanse from West Dallas to Fort Worth. It’s home to Dallas’s trendy Oak Cliff neighborhood, the Dallas Cowboys, and more than 265,000 people without health insurance. Nationally, it’s not in the top 10 in unemployment, food stamps or percent of people below the poverty line. But its 38 percent uninsured rate is the nation’s worst, according to 2012 U.S. Census data.
That’s somewhat surprising. U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela’s rural district in South Texas has a higher poverty rate, though not by much. Troubled areas like South Dallas or Houston’s Fifth Ward are better known around the state. But Veasey’s district owes its distinction to some combination of cartographic chicanery in redistricting, and a recent trend of rising suburban poverty.
“When the economy starts getting bad, the ones that I represent are usually the hardest hit,” Veasey told the Observer last week, when asked why he thought his district had the nation’s most uninsured. The suburbs and older urban areas Veasey represents are 65 percent Latino and 15 percent African-American. The 33rd District includes manufacturers like Bell Helicopter, which has laid off hundreds of workers in the last year.
Other organizers at the press conference lauded the new reports that more than 207,000 uninsured Texans had signed up for health insurance since the new law took effect. Jason Roberts, an Oak Cliff urban planning evangelist who ran against Veasey in the 2012 Democratic primary, said the law helped him get coverage for his recovery from testicular cancer, which he wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise. Lemlem Berhe said she was able to retire without worrying about how she’d pay for her new health insurance plan.
After delivering messages for the cameras in English and Spanish, folks from Organizing for Action went door-to-door to encourage people in Veasey’s district to get insured. They’ve got a long way to go.
Brianna Brown, who heads the Texas Organizing Project’s healthcare outreach in Dallas County, was also at the press conference. Her group runs phone banks, sends volunteers door-to-door, and holds workshops to explain the new law. Statewide, she says they’ve reached 420,000 people to explain the new law and encourage them to get insured. As the March 31 deadline approaches, people have started inviting them to give workshops explaining the law.
“I think that sense of urgency that you had to create before—I think it’s human nature to procrastinate—has been replaced with a very organic sense of urgency,” Brown says.
She says the state’s refusal to expand Medicaid has made her job much harder, because so many of the uninsured people in West Dallas, Irving and Oak Cliff—areas Veasey represents—are working families that earn too much to qualify for Medicaid, too little for new federal subsidies on the marketplace, but still have trouble affording private health insurance.
“That’s been the challenge. Especially for families that have never had health insurance before, and have thought this would be an avenue to access health care,” she says. After hearing about people in other states getting subsidies for their health insurance, she says, they’re disappointed to learn they won’t get that help in Texas.