MILWAUKEE – The city of Milwaukee has benefitted in a significant way from the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). In fact, no other city has covered a higher amount of previously uninsured residents. This achievement induced United States President Barack Obama to make an appearance at the United Community Center (UCC) on the city’s near south side to congratulate the community and to talk about the success of the law.
Milwaukee has enrolled 38,376 new people into private health insurance under the ACA and over 90,000 when counting renewals, which allowed the city to win the Healthy Communities challenge. Obama arrived at General Mitchell International Airport around 11:45 a.m. and was greeted by media, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, County Executive Chris Abele and Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch. He then was caravanned to the UCC to make his address.
A moving opening speech by Brent Brown, a survivor of a near-death auto-immune disease who was denied treatment until the passage of the Affordable Care Act, elicited excitement from the crowd. Brown also cited how he never voted for Obama and was a Republican.
“He was so honest about the fact that he wasn’t a supporter of mine, which is OK, I just bought him lunch,” the president said humorously, eliciting laughter.
Obama congratulated Milwaukee and summarized the success of the law, including the fact that many people have bought health insurance for the first time following its signing. As of last summer, the uninsured rate in the U.S. was below 10 percent for the first time ever. In addition, Obama addressed different ways that different cities were signing people up for health coverage, citing Seattle, Wash., Nashville, Tenn., New Orleans, La., and his hometown, Chicago, Ill.
“It wasn’t about Democrats or Republicans,” the president said in his address. “It was about our values as Americans, hard-working Americans who are no longer locked out of health insurance through no fault of their own. Health care is not a privilege reserved for the few but should be a right for all people.”
“A lot of people don’t know that most consumers can get covered for less than $100 per month, less than your cell phone bill or your cable bill… that’s enough (90,000 people) to fill Lambeau Field and still have a big tailgate party for the lot of folks outside. And, those tailgaters wouldn’t have to worry because Obamacare covers indigestion. This city should be proud. You did the best job of looking out for each other and taking care of each other.”
Obama also hailed Milwaukee politicians, doctors, hospitals, clinics, insurance companies and community leaders for working together to achieve the first-place finish. He went into detail on how Barrett and other leaders rallied people through different methods to get people health coverage. In addition, the president commended minority organizations for their efforts in the process, as well as the disabled.
“20 million more Americans now know the security of health insurance,” said Obama. “That includes six million young people who were less likely to be insured before the Affordable Care Act. As many as 129 million Americans with pre-existing conditions can no longer be charged more or denied coverage.”
The president also talked about seniors in Wisconsin and their increased access to prescriptions. In addition, he went over how hospital infections and resulting deaths have decreased significantly under the ACA.
“We want doctors and hospitals to focus on giving folks the right tests and the right treatment, not just try to sell more tests and sell more treatments,” he said. “The Affordable Care Act is saving lives and saving money.”
In addition, Obama mentioned how, despite Republican claims about the law, the ACA has helped to create more jobs and has contributed to cutting the nation’s budget deficit.
“The Act itself has cost less than the original projections and, in the meantime, healthcare, with price inflation, is at it’s lowest level in 50 years,” he said.
The president was critical of how the Republicans, according to him, put political ideology over facts. He cited Wisconsin as an example at the state level, being critical of both Gov. Scott Walker and U.S. Senator Ron Johnson.
“Republicans have tried and failed to repeal the Act about 60 times,” said Obama. “They’ve told you what they’ll replace it with about zero times.”
“Milwaukee, while you work your tails off to cover enough folks to fill Lambeau Field, your governor still refuses to expand Medicaid in this state,” he said, eliciting a response of “right” and a few boos. “We could cover another 21,000 Wisconsinites with the stroke of his pen. He could join 31 other governors who are taking this on. Which, by the way, actually would save money. He’s denying Wisconsinites their ticket to health insurance, and it’s political.”
Obama gave his thanks to the crowd at the end of his speech and rotated around the front of the podium to shake hands with media and guests at the event.
Barrett and Abele expressed their welcomes to Obama coming to Milwaukee and see it as a sign of progress in the city.
“We want to make sure that people who are working have health coverage,” said Barrett. “Place all the political drama to the side. I can’t see how anybody would object to having people have access to health care. I want it for my family, you want it for your family.”
“If people are not getting the primary health care, they’re going to wait, be sicker, go to the emergency room, and that’s far more expensive and inefficient.”
Before the president made his remarks, Abele and Barrett addressed the crowd to welcome Obama and to praise the ACA for granting more people access to health care.
“It isn’t just about thousands more people having coverage,” said Abele. “I like to remind people that the county has saved two million dollars just this year… and we have a healthier community for it. We understand the value of this act. We’ve spent three years working really hard to make sure that we take advantage of it.”
He used that and the state’s decline of expanded Medicaid funding as springboards for stating that Milwaukee could continue its success in saving money and covering citizens. In addition, Barrett presented the video of his receiving the call informing him of Milwaukee’s victory in the healthcare competition. Abele mentioned that while health care coverage for Milwaukeeans is moving in the right direction, there still is work to be done.
“The fact that 90% of our country now has health care coverage is something that has never happened before,” said Abele. “It’s something we should be proud of, where we’ve come and quickly.”
“The difference now is we have a path to covering everybody, and that’s what I’m really excited about.”
Barrett told a story of a restaurant worker whom he talked to when he ordered lunch. Because of the requirement of many employers to provide health coverage to workers who put in 30 or more hours per week, she works 26 hours at the restaurant, plus has another job. The mayor then addressed how companies are reducing hours to avoid having to cover people’s medical expenses and the problem of people working two or more jobs with no health coverage.
“Underlying all of this is something so serious,” said Barrett. “It almost defies politics.”
Among those in attendance at the event were the Milwaukee Bucks, Wisconsin 4th District Congresswoman Gwen Moore, and former U.S. Senator and Bucks owner Herb Kohl.
“Obamacare itself is a great piece of legislation,” said Kohl. “It has brought medical care to people by the millions that never would have had it before, so it’s something that he will be remembered for. Very proud of Milwaukee for leading the nation in the percentage of new enrollments in Obamacare. I’m very proud of him and our city, and I’m very happy that he’s here.”
Thursday’s appearance at the UCC was the president’s first in Milwaukee since his cameo at Labor Fest in 2014. He hopes that Milwaukee’s progress can translate to the rest of the country.