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Personal Stories Used As Spin Over New Health Law

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — When Jennifer Slafter first ran the numbers, she thought the new federal health care law would cost her family an extra $171 a month for an insurance plan with a higher deductible. So the 40-year-old stay-home mom from southeastern Minnesota felt compelled to go public with her frustration.

Though she voted for Barack Obama twice, Slafter wrote a letter to her local weekly newspaper blasting the president's Affordable Care Act and Minnesota's health insurance exchange, known as MNsure. A local Republican lawmaker noticed her complaints, put her in touch with a GOP press aide and before long Slafter was explaining her beef on the TV news in the Twin Cities. The law's foes spread her story far and wide, although her situation has been looking up since then.

"I didn't necessarily mean to end up in the spotlight," Slafter said as she learned from a reporter last week that her experience was referenced on conservative and liberal blogs and even employed by Republican candidates. "But my concerns were legitimate."

When it comes to the health law, spin is in. But complexities of the insurance market and individual needs mean few experiences overlap perfectly. Nuance is often lost in the face of high political stakes around the law. Democrats are rooting for its success and Republicans are craving to see it undone. Both sides have latched on to personal stories, with critics trumpeting experiences like Slafter's while its backers brandish more positive angles.

MNsure officials have aggressively touted a series of "Customer Stories" of people who have had good experiences. John Grobe is one of them.

The Catholic church administrator from Minnetonka and his wife will save $315 a month on insurance premiums thanks to a plan they bought on MNsure. It'll come with a higher deductible than he has now, though.

"I want this to work, I think the country needs it to succeed and I felt a responsibility to be a part of that because of my own good experience," Grobe said in an interview, stressing that he found the MNsure website easy to use and unburdened by technical glitches.

MNsure officials happened upon Grobe in much the same way Republicans found Slafter: He praised the system in a letter to the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. MNsure executives saw it, and asked him to tell his story at the exchange's board of directors meeting. Satisfied customers rounded up by MNsure officials have frequently made their way into press coverage of the health care law rollout, including in stories by The Associated Press.

MNsure spokesman John Reich said success stories are important. But even as experiences both good and bad help shape perceptions of the law, Reich cautioned it's not the best way to draw broad conclusions.

"Certainly people will draw conclusions from their own experiences," Reich said. "In terms of whether or not the Affordable Care Act is a success or failure, that's a really broad question that will be answered in the years to come. We're going to be answering that question as we get a sense of what the trends look like over the next several years."

That hasn't politicians from wielding the stories for political advantage. Slafter mentioned in one story that she contacted the office of Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken with her concerns but had no response. The day after the story aired, the campaign of Republican Senate candidate Mike McFadden — seeking to run against Franken next year — circulated the story in a press release that accused the Democrat of "ignoring families hurt by Obamacare."

Slafter said Klobuchar's office contacted her after the KSTP-TV story aired. She said a representative of Franken's office finally got in touch Friday morning with apologies and offers of help.

"I completely understand why people are frustrated right now, and they have every right to be," Franken said in a statement provided by his office. "My number one concern is to make sure the Affordable Care Act works for the people of Minnesota."

Slafter's own evolving views of the federal law illustrate well the pitfalls of using any one person or family's experience as emblematic. Since first going public, she said the Fillmore County family found out it is likely eligible for more federal subsidies to help pay for coverage than initially thought. She now doesn't anticipate the family losing money in the conversion next year.

But it will involve big changes. Slafter and her husband, a plumber, plan to shift their 7- and 14-year-old daughters onto Medicaid, rather than keeping the whole family on one coverage plan. While she still calls the signup process frustratingly complex, Slafter said she knows people who benefited from the law.

"They did such a lousy job with the rollout, and it's hard to separate that from the Affordable Care Act itself," she said. "But in my heart I do believe everyone has a right to health insurance."


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