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Wary of Obamacare, some Republicans sign up anyway

The federal government forms for applying for health coverage are seen at a rally held by supporters of the Affordable Care Act, widely refe
The federal government forms for applying for health coverage are seen at a rally held by supporters of the Affordable Care Act, widely refe

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - Julie Davis has every reason to be skeptical of Obamacare: She's a Republican, her father is a physician who is wary of socialized medicine and her insurance was canceled because of new requirements imposed by the healthcare law this year.

But the 44-year-old filmmaker says her decision to seek coverage under President Barack Obama's healthcare reform was a practical one, made with little political angst but plenty of doubt over whether the program will really benefit her family.

"I did approach it with a skeptical eye," said Davis, who lives in Los Angeles with her husband and son. "But it's not political. We have no choice."

After several weeks researching the new health plans, Davis signed up for a mid-tier "silver" plan for the three family members at $930 a month, slightly more than their previous policy purchased on the individual market, but with a far lower deductible.

Davis's choice underscores the disconnect between Washington politics - particularly the Republican Party's push to kill Obama's Affordable Care Act and portray the law as an ill-devised social program bound to fail - and the experiences of at least some rank-and-file party members who are finding practical reasons to sign up. The discrepancy may complicate GOP efforts to use voter dissatisfaction over Obamacare's troubled launch to win control of the Senate in November.

The sharply polarized national argument over the U.S. healthcare system does not line up neatly with the needs of American households. Consumers opposed to the law may find a better deal under Obamacare, which offers subsidized coverage to lower-income households, bars insurers from excluding people on the basis of prior illness and mandates full coverage of common preventive health services. At the same time, some of the law's supporters may also have lost health insurance policies they liked or encounter higher prices for their coverage.

For some, the journey to Obamacare has been uncomfortable and even wrenching.

"It's like part of my identity got stolen," said Clint Murphy, a longtime Georgia Republican political adviser and consultant to candidates who left the party, in large part over Obamacare. Murphy, 38, worked on the 2008 presidential campaign of Arizona Senator John McCain and helped Georgia's Karen Handel run for governor in 2010.

"I was working for Karen during the full throttle of the healthcare debate," Murphy said, helping to position the candidate and attending events where speakers said Obamacare was going to "steal your doctors away."

Then, Murphy said, his mother developed brain cancer. The family spent more than $100,000 on services that were not covered by the government's Medicare program for the elderly. At the same time, Murphy applied for insurance for himself and was denied for having sleep apnea and taking anti-anxiety medication.

The Affordable Care Act, he said, will provide him with a policy for between $245 and $400 per month that covers his needs.

Maggie Fernandez, 37, lost her health coverage when she was laid off from a job with Miami County earlier this year. She has started a small consulting firm but hasn't been able to afford individual market insurance premiums of $900 per month. She stopped taking her blood pressure medication, saying it was too expensive at $130 for a 30-day supply.

In December, she enrolled in a silver plan that costs $315 per month through the federal HealthCare.gov website serving 36 states, many of which are led by Republicans who refused to set up their own Obamacare marketplaces. Her medications now cost $4 apiece each month.

Some of her conservative friends have a hard time understanding why she signed up. Fernandez said she is a pragmatist who believes that everyone should have access to health insurance.

"There's this perception that those who are going to sign up for Obamacare are poor, that they are leeches who are just trying to get free stuff from the government," she said. "I am a law-abiding citizen who pays my taxes ... pays my mortgage and opened my own business. I'm not looking for a freebie."

PERSONAL POLITICS

It's far too early to know how many Republican families are signing up for coverage under Obamacare. The new health insurance marketplaces aren't inquiring about party affiliation, and outreach workers are careful not to ask when they go into communities to explain how the program works.

Nationwide, just over 2 million people have picked or paid for an Obamacare health plan in the first three months of enrollment, which lasts until the end of March, according to government data. The Obama administration hopes to sign up as many as 7 million people by the time enrollment closes.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll shows only a small minority of respondents who identified themselves as Republican voters favor the healthcare law, about 11 percent. Among Republican voters who are candidates for buying health insurance on the Obamacare exchanges, some 17 percent say they are likely to sign up.

Their experience with the program, good or bad, is likely to temper their politics over time, an influence already seen with government programs like Medicare for the elderly and Social Security, said Robert Blendon, a health policy expert at Harvard University.

If Obamacare proves positive for enough Republicans, voters may decline to support candidates who vehemently oppose the program, or split their votes in other ways.

"Your willingness to split your ballot, your willingness to write a check to somebody who thinks the bill is really awful - that is going to change," Blendon said. "If the story works out differently, it could go the other way."

Of course, many who oppose the law won't sign up, regardless of whether it would benefit them.

"I really don't need it or want it right now," said David Petersen, 52, a registered Republican in Walla Walla, Washington. A construction manager who has gone without insurance for years, Petersen could purchase insurance on his state's exchange for about $200 a month.

People who decline to purchase insurance risk a fine of $95 or 1 percent of their income. Knowing that, Petersen did go online and search for a plan. But he decided, in the end, that he'd rather risk the fine.

Cheryl Mooney would qualify for a subsidy that would reduce the price of a policy for herself and her husband to $150 per month from about $1,300.

But the 55-year-old, who lives in North Carolina and is "against Obamacare absolutely," said she might not buy it. "Even with that, I'm not happy," Mooney said.

California Assemblyman Brian Jones, a conservative Republican in San Diego County, is deeply skeptical of Obamacare, and sees the problems with the federal website as a sign of troubles still to come. But he advises constituents who need coverage to check it out.

"Somebody who doesn't have health insurance, if they can get on the exchange and get coverage and they can afford it, then they should do it," Jones said. "And then hope for the best."

(Additional reporting by Curtis Skinner; Editing by Michele Gershberg and Douglas Royalty)

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