Filed Under:Health Insurance, Individual Health

Whatever happened to Obama’s ‘human props’?

President Obama (AP photo/Evan Vucci)
President Obama (AP photo/Evan Vucci)

(Bloomberg) -- Patrick Festa says that after President Barack Obama left his Scranton, Pa., home following a November 2011 visit, things got “a little creepy.”

Friends and neighbors flocked to the house to pose for pictures in the dining room chair where Obama sat for lunch before giving a speech urging a payroll tax-cut extension. Festa and his wife, Donna, kept the president’s used teacup and napkin in the same spot for “too long.”

Today, the thrill of that presidential visit has faded amid the financial strains that Festa, 51, a third-grade teacher, says have intensified over the last two years.

“We’re wondering how we are going to financially get our children through college. There’s going to be a D-Day,” he says, “when all the loans are going to have to be paid.”

If Obama threw a reunion for the scores of Americans he has highlighted on his road trips, he’d find that many, like the Festas, say they’re still waiting for the relief he promoted and are anxious about the future. As he prepares to give his Jan. 28 State of the Union address focusing on economic fairness and combating income inequality, these people’s experiences offer a glimpse into how intractable those and some other challenges he has sought to tackle have become.

The president has sat at a dinner table in Reno, Nevada, with a family that owed more on its home than it was worth, to promote mortgage-refinancing programs. He has spoken in the backyard of a hemophiliac’s Virginia home to highlight benefits of the Affordable Care Act. And he has visited an aluminum- rolling plant in Wisconsin to tout loan guarantees for small businesses that were part of his 2009 economic-stimulus bill.

More meaningful

David Plouffe, a former senior Obama adviser, says these events aren’t just political theater.

“It’s critical that the people who stand to gain or lose from these debates are front and center,” says Plouffe, a Bloomberg Television contributor. “It makes it less about D.C. policy wonkery and more meaningful and accessible to voters and citizens. They can identify with their neighbor.”

The day after Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address, he went to three factories in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, to promote spending on education, research and infrastructure.

When he walked on the factory floor at Skana Aluminum Co., Obama told Chief Executive Officer Tom Testwuide he was pleased to see a company rebound with the help of a government program.

“Mr. President, if you walk in here, you have to know I’m a Ronald Reagan Republican,” Testwuide recalls telling the commander in chief, who spent 25 minutes touring the plant.

Beating expectations

Through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Skana had taken out a $5 million Small Business Administration loan and in 2010 purchased a shuttered factory to produce aluminum coils. The company, which had planned to create 43 jobs, beat expectations: There were 63 employees when Obama visited to showcase Skana as a post-recession success story.

Business has since boomed. The Manitowoc plant now has 140 employees with average wages of $20 an hour, not including benefits. It exports to Colombia, Mexico and Canada.

Still, Testwuide is worried. Obama’s new health-care law is making him lose confidence, he says. He’s not sure what costs he’ll face next year when an employer mandate to provide insurance to workers goes into effect.

At company town halls, employees ask how the mandate will affect benefits.

“At every meeting I say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I’m standing here and I don’t know what’s going to happen next year,’” Testwuide says. “We’re going to have to pass through costs; our employees will absorb additional costs.”

No limits

Testwuide, who didn’t vote for Obama, calls the health law a “disaster.” Yet the anxieties with Obamacare are palpable even among the president’s supporters and those he has held up as direct beneficiaries of it.

Six months after Obama signed the Affordable Care Act in 2010, he visited the Falls Church, Virginia, home of Paul Brayshaw. His goal: to promote popular provisions of the law that were going into effect the next day, including the ban on insurers putting lifetime limits on coverage.

As a hemophiliac, Brayshaw says he has roughly $1 million in annual health costs. His employer, a specialty pharmacy, insured him through a group plan. Had he been on an individual plan, the coverage limits would have forced him to consider changing jobs, moving to another state or going on disability, he said.

“Paul already mentioned the issue of lifetime limits -- that is not going to be the rule anymore,” said Obama, standing in Brayshaw’s backyard in 95-degree heat. “If you’ve got a policy, you get sick, the insurance company covers you.”

Proud ‘prop’

Today, Brayshaw, 40, says he’s proud to have been a “prop” to illustrate the law’s benefits. Still, he’s worried that if market conditions hurt his employer and he has to rely on Obamacare, he won’t be able to stick with the same medicine, doctors, treatment centers or pharmacies.

“If I had to depend on the federal facilitated marketplace that Virginia offers, I have concerns about the extent of that coverage,” he says.

When Ed Neufeldt of Elkhart, Indiana, introduced Obama at a Feb. 8, 2009, town hall, he was unemployed, having lost the job he held for 32 years building recreational vehicles at Monaco Coach Corp. for $20 an hour. RV production has been the town’s main industry. Elkhart’s jobless rate soared to 20.3 percent in March 2009.

Town rebounds

The town has rebounded with the help of the auto industry rescue and funding from the economic-stimulus plan that Obama had gone there to push. The RV industry has been revived and the jobless rate was 7.6 percent in November. A roadside sign for Livin’ Lite Recreational Vehicles LLC says “Accepting Applications.”

Neufeldt, 67, found work -- at three part-time jobs, working 45 hours a week at $10-$11 an hour. While he could have gone back to building RVs, he wanted to “leave that open for some of the young people who really need to get back working.”

Working seven days a week, he begins most days at 4 a.m., driving his pickup truck through snowy country roads to stock shelves at the local grocery store.

“Everybody asks, ‘How are you doing?’” Neufeldt says before his last job of the day cleaning a local office building and the medical clinic inside.

“I’ll say ‘I am living the dream and they say why?’ Well five years ago I couldn’t even find a job and now I got three!” he says.

“I’m not doing great. I don’t think it’s ever going to be like it was 12-15 years ago.”

Little urgency

That was Paul and Val Keller’s concern in May 2012 when Obama stopped by their Reno home to promote mortgage refinancing. The housing market crash forced the Kellers to close their home-remodeling business in 2007.

Their own home’s value had plummeted to $100,000 after they purchased it for $168,000 in 1998. Living in the epicenter of the housing crisis, the Kellers were able to take advantage of the administration’s Home Affordable Refinance Program to save $3,000 a year -- money they put toward the principal.

Obama held up the Kellers as a success story and called on Congress to expand the program. Nevada had the nation’s highest rate of foreclosure filings per household and a jobless rate of 11.5 percent.

Today, the unemployment rate is 9 percent, still above the national average of 6.7 percent. The foreclosure rate is 2.16 percent, second behind Florida, according to RealtyTrac.

The Kellers’ home is worth what they originally paid, and Paul says his community is on the mend -- casinos are turning a profit and unemployed family members have found jobs.

Breaking even

“The house right now is up to where, if I decided to sell, I might break even,” says Paul, 69, who’s now retired. The program “saved us and things are coming back up. I tell people, ‘Hey, that loan worked for us, do it yourself.’’

While the program benefited the Kellers, Obama wasn’t able to get it expanded. There was little sense of urgency in Washington to address mortgage refinancing. And while Congress passed the payroll tax-cut extension that the president had pushed in Scranton, lawmakers later let it expire.

Most of those interviewed don’t blame the president alone for the gridlock that’s stalling progress in the nation’s capital. Yet they’re not optimistic much will change.

‘‘When I listen to that man speak at the State of the Union, I think ‘Wow, my president gets it,’” Paul Festa, the Scranton homeowner, says. Still, “I don’t think anyone really does compromise anymore.”

--With assistance from Michael Callahan in Washington. Editors: Mark McQuillan, Steven Komarow

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