Obamacare Aids N.J. Casino Workers After Christie Opposed Law

After one career in the U.S. Air Force and another setting up banquet halls in Atlantic City casinos, Ronnie Downing found himself out of a job and medical benefits when the Revel hotel shut its doors this month.

He and hundreds of his colleagues turned to Obamacare.

As many as 400 people among 2,500 who signed up for a Sept 10 job fair in Atlantic City asked about enrolling in health coverage under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, illustrating the law’s potential safety-net role in an economy still buffeted by headwinds.

Before Obamacare, workers cut adrift when their employers closed shop had to rely on expensive temporary insurance, take their chances with private coverage or, most often, go without. Now, they can get federal subsidies designed to help low-income people pay for medical care, and insurers must allow them to enroll even with pre-existing medical conditions.

“It opens up a new opportunity for them that never existed before,” said Maura Collinsgru, a health-care advocate at New Jersey Citizen Action, a non-profit organization. “This is just a snapshot at a larger scale of what happens every day across the country. Individuals who lose their jobs can now have an opportunity to get coverage not only for themselves but for their families.”

Plunging Employment

With the closing of Trump Plaza today, the city this year will have shed about 8,000 jobs, a quarter of its casino workforce. Another 2,800 workers may be looking for employment soon: Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc., which filed for bankruptcy Sept. 9, said it may close Trump Taj Mahal in November without union concessions.

Collinsgru, whose organization was at the Sept. 10 job fair helping displaced workers understand Obamacare, said about two-thirds of the 300 to 400 people who asked about the program qualified.

Downing, 56, was born and raised in Atlantic City, which was the top U.S. East Coast gambling destination until competition in neighboring states led to seven straight years of declining revenue. He served in the Air Force for 15 years before going to work for casinos.

When Revel, Atlantic City’s newest venue, opened in 2012, Downing began working there as a steward. The $2.6 billion hotel, meant to lure destination travelers rather than day trippers, ceased operations Sept. 2.

Obamacare “defines directly what the government’s role is,” Downing said in an interview during the job fair. “The government should lead you in the right direction and be there to catch you in case corporations don’t follow through.”

‘Failed Program’

The 2010 law, which Christie opposed, offers people a system of health-care exchanges on which they can purchase insurance and expands the number of people eligible for Medicaid, the state-federal program for the poor. Those with low incomes qualify for a subsidy, making the plans in many cases cheaper than other options.

“Because of the ACA, Atlantic City casino workers will have access to affordable, quality health insurance as they look for work,” U.S. Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, said in an e-mail. “They won’t have to face the frightening prospect of being one accident or illness away from financial ruin – a prospect they would have faced only a few years ago.”

Christie, a Republican who’s said he’s considering a run for president in 2016, has called Obamacare a “failed program,” and refused to establish a state-run exchange, leaving the task to the federal government. Yet in 2013 he agreed to expand the state’s Medicaid program, known locally as Family Care.

Visible Aid

Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for Christie, declined to comment Sept. 15.

“I’m not going to invest further money in a failed federal program,” the governor told Collinsgru during an exchange at a town hall meeting in March.

During the job fair, people -- some in jackets and ties and others in cargo shorts and flip-flops -- navigated more than four dozen booths set up by prospective employers.

The state Labor Department, in addition to organizing the event, helped attendees file for unemployment benefits. UniteHere Local 54, the main casino-workers union, had more than 200 volunteers on hand in bright green t-shirts. Most had been dismissed themselves. They helped members sort through a maze of social-service programs, which include mortgage modification, utility assistance and food stamps.

Bob McDevitt, president of the union, didn’t return messages seeking comment on Obamacare.

‘Gazillion’ Bartenders

Chris Ireland, 55, a Showboat bartender for 27 years until its closing, was among those in fluorescent shirts. Ireland, whose wife also worked there, stood next to a table that held a laser printer for resumes and applications, two organizers’ bull horns and a food stamps pamphlet.

As a stream of reticent-looking workers filed in, he pointed them to stations throughout the room. He said he’s got a couple of applications out, though he has to compete with about a “gazillion” out-of-work mixologists.

Ireland said the union has agreed to extend insurance for many workers, including himself, until December at a $700 monthly premium for a family plan. After that, unless he’s found a job with benefits, his options will be to pay as much as $1,000 a month to continue his employer-based benefits or enroll in Obamacare.

“I’m glad it’s there -- at least there’s something,” he said. “It may not be a perfect solution to America’s health-care needs, but it’s better than a blank.’”

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