Once A High-Profile Skeptic, Western Massachusetts Man Now Sold On Obamacare

Mar 31, 2017

Although the Republicans pulled their healthcare bill last week, they are preparing for another push to repeal the Affordable Care Act. And since the Congressional Budget Office predicted the recent GOP plan would take health insurance away from up to 24 million people, many of the newly insured are worried. 

That includes one Western Massachusetts resident who was once a high-profile skeptic of health reform.

About 8 years ago, Gary Cloutier was poised to become the national face of blue collar resistance to "Obamacare" -- some called him the Joe the Plumber of health reform. 

It all started when I interviewed him for a story on Massachusetts health reform, which was a model for the federal law. At the time, Cloutier -- who owns an autobody shop in Westfield, Massachusetts -- was angry he didn't qualify for the state's subsidized care. He was also against the requirement that everyone get insurance.

"You're forcing something down my throat, and then you're penalizing me because I can't afford it," he said in 2009

Cloutier's comment on NPR reached the ears of a producer at ABC, who invited him to a town all-style meeting with President Barack Obama. Cloutier keeps a DVD of that national TV appearance on his desk and recently played it for me -- starting with Diane Sawyer's introduction.

"Gary Coutier, who is a body shop owner," Sawyer said.

"Yeah, body shop owner from Westfield, Massachusetts," he said. "Cloots Auto Body -- gotta give myself a plug."

"There you go," the president replied, laughing.

Cloutier, a registered independent, told the President he was worried about the "Obamacare" penalty for not being insured.

"What are you going to do for people like me, so that we don't fall through the cracks?" Cloutier asked.

Obama went on to assure Cloutier that the health exchanges would eventually bring down the cost so small business owners like him could afford insurance.

"For you to be part of this exchange, this marketplace, along with millions of others, suddenly you've got a little bit of market clout," he said.

That was about the end of Cloutier's 15 minutes of fame -- shortly after his TV appearance, the pop star Michael Jackson died, and the news cycle was over. Cloutier went back home to figure out how to get health insurance.

"Obamacare" passed, and Massachusetts expanded its subsidized health plans.

"And in the end, I have insurance now," Cloutier said. "It took me a while to get it."

He had to apply three times, but today Cloutier is a devoted convert to health reform -- both Massachusetts' version and Obamacare. He pays a comfortable $150 a month, thanks to subsidies from the Massachusetts health connector. He said he uses his Tufts insurance card regularly.

"I was able to get a physical for the first time in I don't know how long, I was able to get a colonoscopy," he said.

Cloutier also went to a sleep clinic, where he was prescribed a breathing machine for sleep apnea -- which explained why he was always so tired.

"I could've fallen asleep and had an accident, killed someone, killed myself," he said. "Maybe I'm being dramatic, but that possibility is there and I didn't know I had it until I was diagnosed with it. And that was all because I had health insurance now."

He knows the current system is not perfect. In the last year, some major insurers have pulled out of the federal health exchanges, and states including Massachusetts and Connecticut, have warned that some premiums are going up. But Cloutier said it's a lot better than it used to be.

"So here I'm thinking, 'Great, I got insurance.' And now the Republicans come into office and now you want to yank the rug out from under me," he said.

Gary Cloutier was once a skeptic of "Obamacare." Now he's benefiting from it.
Credit Karen Brown / NEPR

Even though the Republican health care bill was pulled last week, Cloutier is worried they'll try something else.

He said he is still financially strapped -- making less than $40,000 a year -- and you can see the pressure he's under to keep costs low, like when he tells one of his employees to go faster on a job.

"Where's your electric ratchet?" he asks. "Time is money."

Cloutier knows that, in some ways, he represents a demographic Trump might assume would be on his side.

"Yeah, I'm the blue-collar worker [and] I'm fed up with the government doing what they do and how they don't really care about us," he said. "But I'm not a moron either."

On the ballot last November, Cloutier wrote in Bernie Sanders rather than vote for Trump or Clinton. But next election, after watching White House attempts to rollback health reform, he's willing to vote strategically to make sure Trump doesn't win again.