How would reform affect her and her business? “I don’t know,” she said. “I assume people would benefit, but I really don’t know how it would affect me. I don’t know what health reform is about except that insurance companies have to take everyone.” Walker did question whether the Democrats were forceful enough. “I don’t think the Democrats have protested enough,” she explained. “I’m concerned our senator will be bowled over by the negativity.” Presumably she meant Sen. Claire McCaskill, who had some rough going at a town hall meeting this summer. So what’s going to happen in the end? I asked.
“Nothing,” Walker replied.
Vicki Smith, age fifty-nine, is one of Walker’s employees who does not have insurance. A fiber artist who works with paper, Smith has had coverage off and on during her life. “I work very hard to stay healthy,” she said. “I don’t go to the doctor unless I have to, and then I pay for it.” Smith was pretty knowledgeable about the reform effort, although she admitted she didn’t know many specifics. “It’s to make it available to people who can’t afford it,” she explained. “It would be cost efficient and non-discriminatory.”
How would reform affect her? I asked. “I don’t know, other than it would make it available if I need it,” she answered. She had never heard the term “individual mandate,” but worried that she couldn’t afford to buy the required coverage if she didn’t qualify for a subsidy, as many people will not. “Currently the cost is prohibitive for someone who works part-time and has a preexisting condition,” she told me. Finally, she said: “It would be cheaper to pay the penalty than buy the coverage.”
I walked into El Rancho, a restaurant on Broadway that bills itself as a fast, authentic Mexican eatery. According to Inside Columbia magazine, El Rancho was the area’s best place for Mexican food in 2009. I was hoping to chat with the owner and the staff making taco salads and enchiladas. But it was getting on toward lunch time, and everyone was busy, so instead I tried to talk to some diners. Many did not want to talk about health care.
A family from East St. Louis was in town delivering their nineteen-year-old daughter to college. “At this time, health reform is not important,” said the wife, who refused to give her name. “I don’t know a whole lot about it, and I don’t feel like it’s affecting us.”
Her husband chimed in. “Basically it’s just kind of fuzzy to everybody,” he said.
Did they want to know more, I pressed. “Not at this time,” said his wife. “I don’t want to know more. It has been in the news. If we were really concerned, we could find out about it.”
Elly’s Couture was my last stop. “It’s a clothing store catering to women between ages sixteen and thirty-six. We sell fun college clothes—cool dresses for sorority girls to go out in,” said Amanda Schubring, a twenty-four-year old part-time employee. Schubring is also a part-time student at the university, majoring in fashion design and merchandising. Clad in short jeans and a long, turquoise T shirt and straw hat, she was a great advertisement for the store. But health insurance and health reform had not registered with her. “Honestly, I don’t know much about it,” she confessed. “Mostly I don’t think about it. I need to be worrying about it technically, but I don’t.” She said she didn’t know much about Obama’s plan and was “not educated about it.”
Elly, the store owner, was working at the computer. She didn’t particularly want to talk about health insurance for her six part-time workers. She herself has coverage. “I don’t know anything about Obama’s plan,” she said. Tax credits, insurance coverage, exemptions from requirements might well have been the stuff from another planet.