As seen on NJ.com:

Thirty-two days.

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell casually mentioned that time period when she appeared at the Tops Diner in East Newark on Wednesday to defend the landmark law.

While President-elect Donald Trump has been making a victory tour of sorts since last month's election, Burwell is hitting the road as well, knowing the clock is ticking: 

She has 32 more days to convince uninsured people to buy health insurance, and 32 more days to convince voters that the Affordable Care Act is worth preserving. She was joined by U.S. Senator Cory Booker, who said he'd be fighting to keep the law from being repealed. 

"We are going to work until the last day," said Burwell, whose cabinet-level job will end the same day Barack Obama's does.

Trump ran on a platform of repealing the ACA and replacing it with something else to be determined.

After the election, however, he speculated he might want to keep two key provisions of the law: letting young adults remain on their parents' policies until 26, and banning insurers from rejecting customers with pre-existing conditions.

Burwell came to the renown Hudson County diner as part of a last-minute swing to regions of the country in which there are lots of people who could qualify for subsidized health insurance - but who aren't enrolled.

North Jersey is one of those areas, along with Orlando and Tampa, where she appeared the day before.

The deadline to enroll for coverage that goes into effect Jan. 1 is Thurs., Dec. 15. The overall open enrollment period ends Jan. 31.

Burwell was joined at her diner press conference by four people who told her about the law's impact on them. (All four were invited by Burwell's office.)

  • Verdan Fontaine of Jersey City never had health insurance, figuring it was cheaper to pay for her high blood pressure treatment instead of buying a policy. Her doctor chastised her for skipping visits, she said, but she ignored him.

Then her mother died, and the take-home message was clear for the 53-year-old grandmother of four: "I needed to take better care of myself," she said, tearing up.

She's terrified the ACA will be repealed before any comparable system is in place to help people who can't afford policies on their own.

"The people who are talking about repealing - they have insurance! We don't!," she told Burwell, as U.S. Sen. Cory Booker looked on. (Booker said he knew for a fact senators have good insurance.)

  • Chiara D'Agostino, of Montclair,  came to the meeting even though she had another round of breast cancer surgery last week. The former Italian teacher from Montclair told Burwell she signed up for Medicaid in 2014, and was diagnosed with the disease a few months later.

"I'm sitting here not even a week after surgery because I was really honored to be able to tell my story," said D'Agostino, who added she was able to find wonderful doctors to treat her even though she was on Medicaid.

  • Ronald E Grossberndt Jr , 46, of Woodbridge, is a carpenter for a small company with just two employees. He buys insurance through the marketplace, paying $420 a month because his income is too high to qualify for a subsidy.

He's perplexed by talk of repealing the law without replacing it with something that provides an equally wide net of coverage.

"I think it might be the most foolish thing to do," he said. "Why would you not want your workforce healthy?" 

  • David Moyer, 34, talked about two little-discussed provisions of the law that affect everyone's policies, not just those who buy the plans offered on the federal marketplace website: birth control and mental health. Moyer, of Westwood, said his wife's birth control device before the ACA cost $900. Now, it is free.

"From $900 to nothing? That's Christmas right there," he told Burwell.

He also praised the law because it mandates mental health issues be covered on par with more standard medical issues.  "It's one of those illnesses that's hard to see," said Moyer, who takes medications to treat anxiety. "It helps you function and be a productive member of society."

Burwell conceded those messages hadn't penetrated the electorate, noting many people who get health insurance through their employers viewed Obamacare as bringing them no benefits. 

With just 32 days to go before a new administration takes office, however, Burwell might be running out of time. 

Written by Kathleen O'Brien

Chiara D'AgostinoComment