What if We Used Obamacare to Help the Poor Even More?

With ORCA Lift, King County uses data for good and overcomes a huge obstacle facing social programs.

For the 2015 edition of Best of Seattle, the Seattle Weekly staff looked back on the past year and selected the five innovations that we feel will do the most to make our city better. This is one of them. To read the rest of Seattle's Best Ideas, go here.

Bus fare is too damn high. This fact, so obvious to many riders, was finally acknowledged by the King County Council in February 2014, when it passed legislation to offer discounted fares to low-income riders. The program was meant as a lifejacket for poor riders who struggled to pay: Fares for Metro had risen five times in the past six years as the county transit agency struggled to plug holes in its budget, and would rise yet again within a year.

But by the time that sixth increase hit, the discount had became a reality in the form of ORCA Lift, and now the county is on track to enroll 40,000 people by the end of the program’s first year. The New York Times reports that that’s more than double the enrollment for San Francisco’s comparable Lifeline pass, which has been around for a decade.

“This is what a commitment to building equity looks like,” says county spokesperson Chad Lewis. Studies back him up, some suggesting that access to transit is more helpful to economic mobility than education. Lewis says that other cities, while initially skeptical of adding a rider discount to already-strained budgets, have begun looking at Lift as a potential model for their own policy. Partly that’s due to media buzz: Lift has been featured in high-profile national media, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Meet the Press. Since Lift entered the national spotlight, Lewis says, the reaction from other cities, including New York and Los Angeles, “went from skeptical to curious.”

Lift’s discount is disarmingly simple: Transit riders who earn less than $23,540 for a single adult—in other words, less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line—are charged only $1.50 to ride Metro buses, Kitsap Transit buses, Link light rail, the water taxi, or the Seattle streetcar, regardless of time or zone. (By comparison, standard adult fares range from $2.50 to $3.25.) The mechanism for the discount is a special ORCA card that lasts two years, even if the rider’s income increases. To avoid stigmatizing users, the county made sure that Lift passes are identical to regular ORCA cards, except for the tiny expiration date printed on the back. “Even the driver can’t tell” whether an ORCA card has the Lift discount, says Lewis.

To people whose bus spending is already a minuscule part of their monthly budget, discounted fares don’t mean much. “But if you are [near] the poverty level, that extra 50 dollars is actually a [significant] percentage of your income,” Lewis says.

“We had one client when the program first started,” recalls King County Public Health’s Daphne Pie. “He was job-searching, and he was . . . getting interviews, but it was getting expensive to ride the bus to get there. And so when we got him on ORCA Lift, he was so ecstatic.

“This is a tangible benefit,” she continues. “He just put an extra 50 dollars back in his pocket that he can use somewhere else. Maybe go to a movie, maybe buy that pair of shoes that he needs or that shirt that he needs to go to an interview . . . We’re actually giving the most vulnerable something to put back in their pockets that they’re going to eventually use back in the economy anyway.”

"This is what a commitment to building equity looks like."

Discounted fares for poor riders seems like common sense. But there has long been a barrier for support programs like Lift: enrollment. How do you deliver the discount to everyone who qualifies and no one who doesn’t?

Bureaucratic piggyback. That’s how.

Back in 2013, county officials helped roll out the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, by partnering with agencies and nonprofits who shared the county’s goal of connecting poor people with health insurance. This alliance took shape at the First Friday Forum Network, a longtime monthly meeting group on public-health strategy comprising about 80 different organizations.

“We built that network of partners so that we had the bandwidth” to do adequate outreach, says Pie, who helped orchestrate the ACA rollout. “That’s what made it really impactful, is community organizations that came together to do the work.” Someone walking into, say, a public-health clinic for back pain or a neighborhood community center for food stamps would be asked “Do you have insurance? Do you want some?”

So when last summer Pie received an e-mail from County Executive Dow Constantine inquiring how Metro might institute Lift, her first thought was, “This has to be layered into the programs that we’re already doing.” Pie realized that Lift enrollment could simply piggyback on those programs’ pre-existing income insurance verification for people getting subsidized food, housing or shelter, health insurance, or energy. “We already have the documentation there,” she recalls thinking. “ORCA Lift should be a natural fit.”

This piggyback verification is the really innovative part of Lift—what allows it to work smarter instead of harder. And keeping red tape out of enrollment is essential to the program’s success. As Pie notes, the last thing poor riders need is another pile of forms to fill out. “If we created a program that had a litany of paperwork,” she says, “that really defeats the purpose of the program.”

“A program is not effective if it’s not accessible,” adds Lewis.

Avoiding paper litanies meant bundling various benefits into a customer-friendly package. Instead of playing phone tag with obscure sub-departments or busing all over Seattle to try to get a bus pass, people who come to the Metro offices for, say, health insurance can get informed about and enrolled in Lift in about 15 minutes, says Pie.

Five months in, Lift’s enrollment has surpassed 13,500, most of whom are Seattleites. Pie and Lewis expect enrollment to gather speed as they gradually train more partner organizations to recruit.

In the meantime, satisfied customers are lending a hand. “We actually have one guy that brings people in,” says Pie. “He got signed up on ORCA Lift when it first opened, and he actually brings people in so that they can get signed up for ORCA Lift, down to the Metro office.

“It’s really kind of cool,” she says, smiling.


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