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 Bill Owens' political fortunes have been married to the Affordable Care Act since November 2009.  NCPR file photo
Bill Owens' political fortunes have been married to the Affordable Care Act since November 2009. NCPR file photo

NY21: Democrat Owens will campaign on health reform

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The Affordable Healthcare Act is expected to be front and center in next year's congressional campaign. Republicans are hoping to turn dissatisfaction with the law into a wave of victories in 2014.

Democrats, meanwhile, have been pressuring President Barack Obama to improve the program sometimes known as "Obamacare," which was designed to make insurance more affordable to millions more Americans.

Some Democratic lawmakers have even been distancing themselves from the policy.

But North Country's congressman Bill Owens, a Democrat from Plattsburgh, appears comfortable campaigning on his support for the Healthcare Act and says the program is working for people in his district.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

They still have not gotten to the point where they can deliver information that is clear and understandable to people...it's very frustrating...
The first Democrat to represent the entire North Country, Owens was elected in 2009 as part of the same wave of political turmoil and Democratic optimism that produced the Affordable Care Act itself. 

OWENS POLITICAL CAREER MIRRORS OBAMACARE DEBATE

A quick recap goes like this. 

Barack Obama is elected in 2008, promising to expand healthcare coverage for more Americans.  After he wins, Obama appoints North Country Republican congressman John McHugh to a post in Washington. 

That move clears the way for a special election, which becomes a free-for-all that includes tea party challenger Doug Hoffman. 

Out of that muddle, Bill Owens emerges with a squeaker win and just days later – in November 2009 – he’s hastily sworn in and casts one of the decisive Democratic votes in favor of healthcare reform.

"I've come to the conclusion that this bill gives us the opportunity to make headway on healthcare," Owens declared.

In the years since, that vote has become a kind of rallying cry for Republicans trying to take back a seat that once looked like sovereign GOP territory. 

Ads like this one were a staple ahead of the 2012 election.  "Why did Congressman Owens ram through government-mandated healthcare?"

Republican challenger Matt Doheny from Watertown – who tried to unseat Owens in 2010 and again in 2012 – described the Affordable Care Act as an abomination.

"It's almost anti-constitutional and I will not stand for that," Doheny said at a debate in Queensbury.

Bill Owens (left) and Matt Doheny at the YNN NY21 Candidate Debate. Photo: Amanda Morrison, Watertown Daily Times provided courtesy YNN
Bill Owens (left) and Matt Doheny at the YNN NY21 Candidate Debate. Photo: Amanda Morrison, Watertown Daily Times provided courtesy YNN

THEN CAME HEALTHCARE.GOV

Owens survived those challenges by narrow margins.  But pressure on Democrats amped up again this fall, when the Obama administration rolled out the Healthcare.gov website and the program turned out to be deeply flawed. 

Even progressive commentators like Jon Stewart slammed the effort, lampooning it as "Rocky but not Mayor of Toronto rocky."

But four years after his historic and controversial vote for healthcare reform, Owens has continued to stick by the program. 

In early December, he held an open conference call with constituents to answer questions about Healthcare reform and its impact here in the North Country.

The calls that came in tended to be nuts-and-bolts questions about details of a program that still confuses many people.  Even some in the healthcare industry remain unsure about how it works.

Speaking after the teleconference, Owen acknowledged frustration with the Obama administration’s roll-out of the program.

"They [the Obama administration] still have not gotten to the point where they can deliver information that's clear and understandable to people and this is complicated," Owens said.

"It's very frustrating that they're not doing this and they're not doing it well."

OWENS WILL STICK BY ACA IN 2014

But Owens said he was heartened that in his district at least the conversation was about practical issues, not ideology.

"We did not get anti calls, we got nuts and bolts calls.  'How do I do this' was the theme," he said.

One big difference for Owens – compared with other Democrats around the US – is that New York state has participated eagerly in the Affordable Care Act roll-out.

People enrolling in the program here don’t use Healthcare.gov – that flawed Federal site.  Instead, they use a website and an application process created by New York’s health department.

State officials say more than 360 thousand New Yorkers have already filled out applications on that site and nearly 135,000 people are fully enrolled in insurance plans.

Owens says that relative success means he’ll be comfortable campaigning on his support for insurance reform again in 2014.

"I am and I have the good fortune of being in New York," Owens said.  He praised state officials for putting together an exchange program that works.

"Many of the people in the indiviual markets are seeing a 50% reduction in their cost of care," he said.

The first deadline for people in the North Country interested in getting health insurance through the Affordable Care Act is tonight at 11:55 pm. 

Click here for more information about how to enroll.

Meanwhile, in the months ahead, we’ll find out if Owens’ continued support for Obamacare will be a hurdle for his re-election, as many Republicans hope.

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