Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins embraces Obamacare

The long line of weary-eyed people waiting at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center to get help accessing the new “health care marketplaces” didn’t escape the notice of Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins.

Though Jenkins was supposed to be looking for the official entourage that would show him around the health fair that day, he instead walked up and down the line. Like a coach giving a halftime speech, he shouted encouragement.

“OK people, let’s get y’all signed up for health coverage,” he said, offering handshakes and high-fives. “We’re going to get you some affordable Obamacare.”

Jenkins, a Democrat, has emerged as perhaps North Texas’ top cheerleader for President Barack Obama’s much-debated health care overhaul. He has spent countless hours meeting with residents, explaining the Affordable Care Act and helping people apply for coverage.

The spotlight on Jenkins’ fervent support will shine brightly Wednesday, when Obama visits Dallas to thank local health care volunteers — at a meeting the county judge helped organize.

Jenkins’ hearty backing of the contentious measure, and of a polarizing president, carries political risks, especially heading into an election year. Republican Ron Natinsky, a former Dallas City Council member, has already announced his intention to run against Jenkins.

The health care overhaul’s disastrous website rollout has already given Republican critics of the law ample fodder.

But Jenkins said some issues transcend political polls — and that access to affordable medical care fits the bill in a county where 27 percent of residents lack health insurance.

“I recognize that I am the local face of a program that’s had many challenges,” he said. “But I’m willing to continue to make that trade-off if it means even a small number of … uninsured people getting affordable insurance.”

With its high number of uninsured residents and its solidly conservative Republican base, Texas has been at the center of the health care debate. Many oppose Obamacare. But in the end, despite countless legislative and legal challenges, the Affordable Care Act is the law of the land.

Jenkins and other leaders, including Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, are now grappling with that reality.

Dallas County has about 650,000 uninsured residents, according to Census Bureau statistics. Many of those seek health care on a crisis basis and end up rushing to the emergency room at the county hospital — at great public cost.

Last year, county taxpayers spent about $685 million to take care of uninsured patients at Parkland Health & Hospital System, Jenkins said.

He views the issue from a humanitarian standpoint, arguing that access to better insurance will prevent treatable health problems from becoming debilitating or deadly ones. But he also makes a fiscal plea, saying fewer uninsured patients could mean millions of dollars in savings.

“You pay more in county taxes to care for the uninsured than all other county taxes combined,” he said. “Think about that.”

Jenkins is far from alone in North Texas’ multipronged health care outreach, which advocates describe as a model for the state.

Faith-based groups, hospitals and other organizations have been at the forefront, helping people get a handle on the new law. At Parkland, for instance, more than 300 employees trained as counselors have helped nearly 3,000 people fill out applications for coverage.

“They raised the bar — created it, actually,” said Marjorie McColl Petty, director of the regional office of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.

Other local politicians have been active, but Jenkins has gone further than most.

He’s attended forums with hundreds in the audience, and he’s shown up at events to mingle with just a few.

An acknowledged policy wonk, the county judge is well-versed in Obamacare’s plans and premiums. And he’s memorized the hotline numbers that consumers can call for help.

“The judge has been an incredible force,” Petty said, echoing similar praise from the White House.

Sometimes, Jenkins has approached enrollment one person at time. Just ask Makala Washington, a 33-year-old substitute teacher who came to Parkland’s Irving Health Center this week on the judge’s advice.

Washington had given up on the website (HealthCare.gov). But as the judge looked on, she filled out an application with help from trained Parkland counselors and started the process toward getting insurance for the first time in several years.

What would’ve happened without Jenkins’ prodding?

“I probably would’ve gotten sick and been like, ‘Oh my gosh, I never finished that,’” she said with a sheepish grin.

That the Affordable Care Act’s rollout has had problems has only raised the stakes of Jenkins’ “all in” approach.

Some Texas Democrats, at least those with credible Republican challengers, are reluctant to embrace Obama in a public way. And Jenkins, who worked on Obama’s 2008 campaign, is only three years removed from squeaking out what he jokingly calls a “49.6 percent landslide victory” in the race for county judge.

Even though Dallas County has become reliably Democratic, Jenkins said he knows his Republican critics are champing at the bit to voice their disgust at Obamacare — and at him.

Wade Emmert, Dallas County’s Republican Party chairman, said Jenkins’ support for the health care law proves he’s a big-government Obama shill. Natinsky, Jenkins’ GOP opponent next year, said the judge’s efforts have “clearly crossed the line of bringing politics into policy.”

“I’ve never seen a county judge take it to these extremes,” Natinsky said.

“You should do what’s right, not be beholden to some mandate from Washington.”

But if anything, the problems with Obamacare have caused Jenkins to redouble his efforts.

He hasn’t avoided addressing the overhaul’s shortcomings, though it’s not often that he’s really had a choice. He’s defused some concerns with humor, joking that the website would’ve been OK if officials had simply paid GoDaddy.com an extra $500.

And Jenkins has become more aggressive in pointing out other ways to sign up — over the phone or in person at a Parkland location — and encouraging resolve among the thousands trying to obtain health insurance.

At the health fair at the convention center, 36-year-old Alisa Coleman stopped the judge as he shouted encouragement. “I’m trying,” she said. Jenkins, hopeful that she would get signed up that day, simply said, “Don’t give up.”

“People are a lot smarter than politicians give them credit for,” he said later. “We are ultimately judged by those who are paying attention — and not voting an ideology or straight ticket.”