In the Cuban-American Republican stronghold of Hialeah, Florida, President Barack Obama’s campaign logo is painted on the exterior wall of a building at 1420 W 68th St. alongside a phone number for the Univista Insurance Agency and the following message written in Spanish: “Obamacare enrollment center. Get free assistance! Apply early!”
The agency has also placed a similar advertisement on a bus bench near the entrance to the building’s parking lot.
Since the enrollment period for 2015 began in November, 600 people have signed up for coverage through the controversial government-run healthcare insurance exchange, said Alejandro Diaz, one of three brokers who handle Obamacare clients at Univista’s 68th Street location. He said the agency, which sells auto, home, life, and health insurance policies, also operates three other locations in Hialeah that have enrolled more than 1,000 residents to a plan as mandated by the Affordable care Act.
“It’s been a good business for us,” Diaz said. “There is a lot of demand and no shortage of customers.”
Univista is not the only company in Hialeah looking to turn Obamacare into a capitalist endeavor. Driving through the working class, heavily Latino city, it’s almost impossible to miss the Obamacare advertisements on billboards, storefront windows and public right-of-ways.
The proliferation of agents and brokers peddling Obamacare has catapulted Hialeah to the top spot among cities that have the most people signing up for insurance using the HealthCare.gov platform.
A total of 12,330 people have selected a plan or re-enrolled as of mid-January in Hialeah’s 33012 ZIP code, ranking it the highest of any other ZIP code in the 37 states that use the insurance exchange. Three other Hialeah ZIP codes are ranked fourth, sixth, and seventh. And every ZIP code in the top 10 are located in South Florida.
Historically, Hialeah has had a high proportion of uninsured individuals in the state, said Nicholas Duran, Florida director for Enroll America, a non-profit agency that advocates for people to get coverage. So healthcare activists have been making a strong push to drive up enrollment numbers in the city, Duran said.
“There is a more robust infrastructure in place than November 2013, when the first enrollment period began,” Duran explained. “You are seeing a larger number of one-on-one assistance for people who want health care coverage.”
So far, he said, the strategy appears to be working. From November 15 to January 16, 36,944 Hialeah residents signed up for Obamacare compared to 30,805 who enrolled for coverage in 2014. Duran expects the numbers to continue climbing until the 2015 enrollment period ends on February 15.
“What really perks up people’s ears is the opportunity to obtain financial assistance,” he said. “This year, 94 percent of the people enrolled in Florida received financial assistance. Last year it was 90 percent. The national average is in the 80s.”
However, Obamacare critics in Hialeah say the record number of applicants in the city does not mean residents are giving the president’s signature policy their tacit approval. Hialeah Councilman Pablo Hernandez said residents are obliged to buy healthcare because they know it is mandated by federal law.
“We are a very traditional, hard-working, blue-collar city where the median household income is about $17,000 less than the state average,” Hernandez said. “For a long time, people had to choose between paying their mortgage, their utility bills, daily food necessities and health insurance. It’s only natural that a place where people didn’t have insurance before would have the largest sign up rates in the country.”
And some Obamacare insurance agencies have not experienced the business boon they were expecting. Ammer Cabrera, a manager for Sunshine Life & Health Advisers, a firm specializing in healthcare exchange enrollment, said he opened a second location at the Westland Mall on West 49th Street, Hialeah’s main thoroughfare, anticipating a high volume of customers.
Sunshine opened its first storefront at the mall in October 2013. “There were so many people, we didn’t have the manpower or the space to handle them,” Cabrera said. “We were averaging 500 people a day.”
In addition to a second location, Sunshine contracted 20 insurance agents licensed through the healthcare exchange, up from five during the 2014 enrolment period, Cabrera said. Yet, business has been slower than he expected.
“I’ve done 3,000 enrollments at this spot,” he said. “I thought we would do at least 10,000.”
The Hialeah market, he said, is oversaturated with competitors, which has diluted the client pool. Secondly, threats by the Republican-controlled Congress to defund Obamacare for 2016 has also led people to believe they don’t need to sign up for it, Cabrera added.
“There are people who think Obamacare is over,” he said. “Sometimes perception is reality.”
Francisco Alvarado is a freelance journalist in South Florida.