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The Real Significance Behind Uber’s Big Obamacare Signup Push

Insurance companies and prominent companies that rely on independent contractors—including ride-sharing giant Uber—have been stepping up to urge Americans to sign up for individual health insurance plans during Obamacare’s ongoing open enrollment season. This comes after the Trump administration’s decision to slash outreach efforts for the health law. And the ramped up Obamacare push by companies like Uber highlights how the health law has been an important resource for some workers who don’t qualify for public insurance or receive health benefits through their employers during the gig economy era, wherein many employees are part-time or freelance workers.

Uber and several smaller tech companies are launching a series of new events beginning Friday to help employees enroll in Obamacare health insurance plans. (Open enrollment for Obamacare began November 1 and will continue through December 15 in most states.) For the effort, Uber is enlisting the help of health consultant startup Stride Health, which is reportedly also working with Silicon Valley outfits like Etsy, DoorDash, and Postmates to get those firms’ independent contractors covered. Stride told Reuters that about 150,000 Uber drivers used the company’s services to search for health insurance plans last year, and that the firm is ramping up its efforts for 2018 enrollment after the Trump administration cut 90% of Obamacare’s outreach funding.

The vast majority of Americans receive health coverage through their employers (typically large companies) or public insurance programs like Medicare and Medicaid. But part-time workers, or those who work at small firms, self-employed entrepreneurs, contractors, and freelancers don’t necessarily qualify for those kinds of coverage options. For these Americans, Obamacare has presented a new avenue for private health insurance that, depending on a person’s income, is at least somewhat subsidized by the federal government and has to meet minimum medical benefit standards.

Of course, Uber and others have their own vested interest in getting their workers signed up (and helping them do so). For one, it could help improve relationships with contract employees who may feel they’re given short shrift because they aren’t full-time, salaried workers. Perhaps more importantly to the firms, the option of Obamacare coverage means they don’t have to shell out for employees’ health benefits without being tagged as heartless corporations.

That dynamic is part of the reason that some independent workers have praised Obamacare for alleviating so-called “job lock,” where employees feel trapped in a certain career because they don’t want to lose health insurance coverage. A recent study by the University of Utah and Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City found that childhood cancer survivors may be far more inclined to stay parked in jobs they loathe for fear of losing benefits, for instance. The specter of a regulated (and for people earning up to four times the Federal Poverty Level, subsidized) private individual insurance market could be one way to counteract that trend. And with a rising tide of atomized, decentralized, “gig economy” employment, it may not be surprising that some companies are urging their workers to take advantage of resources like Obamacare.