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US Midterms: Critics have gone quiet, so is Obamacare working?

Alex Won, AFP / Obamacare supporters at a rally in Washington in 2012

US President Barack Obama’s dwindling popularity has been singled out as a key handicap for Democrats ahead of Tuesday’s crucial midterms. But there is one Republican punching bag that has been remarkably absent from the campaign: Obamacare.

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Four years ago, when Obama’s Democrats lost their majority in the House of Representatives, the president’s signature healthcare reform was on everyone’s lips.

Since then, the much decried reform has come into force – and the White House has come to embrace the term “Obamacare”, even though it was initially intended as a slur.

In places like Arlington Free Clinic in Virginia, which offers free healthcare to those without insurance, the “Affordable Care Act” – the reform’s official name – is starting to bear fruit.

In recent months, the number of visitors to this clinic, whose doctors and nurses are all volunteers, has gone down.

That is good news, says director Jody Steiner Kelly, as the waiting room is a little less full.

"We still have three or four times as many people coming to the clinic as we are able to handle, so it's important for us that these people get insurance and get access so that we free up the space for other people who don't have any other alternative," she told FRANCE 24.

To be eligible for Obamacare, candidates have to be in the country legally. In most states, their income needs to be below a certain level.

Despite these restrictions, enrollment figures speak for themselves.

"In my opinion, anytime 16 million people have access to healthcare who didn't have access to healthcare before, that's a good thing,” says Steiner Kelly, though acknowledging that “some things still need to be fixed”.

“Any huge programme like this is not going to be done in a year. I think so far it's been working, better than you might be inclined to believe," she says.

‘I would’ve never known I had cancer’

After a challenging start to enrollment, plagued by a series of technical glitches, millions of Americans now have access to health insurance for the very first time.

Liberty Sizemore in Manchester, Kentucky, is among those whose life has changed as a result.

A gas station worker with a low income, she couldn't afford health insurance – until the Affordable Care Act came along.

Before Obamacare, Sizemore hadn’t seen a doctor for nine years.

"Now I don't have to worry,” she says. “I go every three month to keep my check-ups. That's how I found out about the cancer, the cancer cells which got removed in time because of that. I would have never known."

Sizemore says she tends to vote Republican in her state, but at the presidential election she voted for Obama.

"I'm glad I did, because without him there would never have been Obamacare,” she says. “I'm glad he brought that here."

Her case is one among millions across the country.

Hispanic ‘health fairs’

Perhaps mindful of this, candidates for Congress have refrained from placing opposition to Obamacare at the heart of their campaign – a fact that has not gone unnoticed.

Speaking at a rally in Evanston, Illinois, on Sunday, Obama said there was a good reason fewer Republicans were railing against healthcare reform this time.

"Because while good, affordable healthcare might seem like a fanged threat to the freedom of the American people on Fox News, it turns out it's working pretty well in the real world," he said.

There are communities, though, where Obamacare is yet to catch on.

Sign-ups in rural America and among the Hispanic community are noticeably lower.

Gabriela Jofre Parra organizes “health fairs” in churches in Virginia to persuade Hispanics to sign up.

"One of the big obstacles is the language. That's why they are a bit reluctant to sign up,” she says. “Most of them don't use social media. And so they are left behind and don't get the information they need."

The Hispanic vote has been crucial to Obama’s two election wins, and expanding healthcare within Spanish-speaking communities may help the Democrats in future elections.

So far, roughly a quarter of previously uninsured Americans have been covered thanks to Obamacare.

And as a new period of sign-ups begins this month, the number of uninsured is set to go down further still.
 

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