By Salvador Rodriguez
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Uber Technologies Inc [UBER.UL] and some smaller technology companies are launching campaigns to publicize Obamacare enrollment among their contract workers after the Trump administration slashed government marketing for the health program by 90 percent.
Freelance and contract workers are an important part of the workforce for many Silicon Valley companies, including drivers at Uber and rival Lyft Inc, and technology companies also have been among the most vocal in confronting Trump administration policies – particularly immigration – that they perceive as hurting their workforce.
Uber describes its program as a response to a growing need for drivers rather than a political act. The program is part of an effort started in June by Uber to improve the company’s relationship with drivers by rolling out new initiatives and features, such as tipping, that better serve them.
Starting on Friday, Uber will hold events for drivers in 28 U.S. cities, from Los Angeles to Indianapolis, to offer in-person assistance in signing up for insurance plans offered through the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare. Uber did not disclose a budget for the initiative.
The Uber program is an expansion of a partnership with Stride Health, a health consultant startup that specializes in helping independent workers choose health, dental and vision insurance plans. Stride said it is also working separately with a group of companies, including Etsy Inc <ETSY.O>, DoorDash Inc and Postmates Inc, to sign up independent contractors for insurance.
Uber has had a difficult year in the face of a federal probe into whether it broke bribery laws, allegations of sexual harassment, and other issues that led the company to bring in a new chief executive and promise to take better care of drivers.
Former CEO Travis Kalanick also drew criticism for joining President Donald Trump’s business advisory council. Kalanick left the council in February.
Across the United States, Obamacare enrollment for 2018 is clouded by uncertainty as experts expect reduced participation amid bitter political debate around the program’s future.
Republicans in Congress have repeatedly failed to repeal and replace former President Barack Obama’s healthcare law, which they have said drives up costs for consumers and interferes with personal medical decisions. Democrats have warned that repeal would leave millions of Americans without health coverage.
Uber has about 600,000 drivers in 49 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
Meghan Joyce, Uber’s regional general manager of the United States and Canada, said in a phone interview this week that there was an appetite for healthcare among drivers. Nearly 150,000 Uber drivers searched for insurance plans through Stride Health last year, and most of them enrolled. “This year we’re doubling down on that,” Joyce said.
The Trump administration has shortened the Affordable Care Act enrollment period, which is currently open. It also has cut the advertising budget to $10 million and slashed by 40 percent the budget for support staff, known as navigators, who help people choose policies.
“Those are gone in most parts of the country,” said Stride Health Chief Executive Noah Lang in a phone interview on Friday.
The enrollment period ends on Dec. 15. in most states.
“There’s independent contractors who need coverage right now. The law of the land says they have access to it. It’s our No. 1 job to make sure they get it,” Lang said.
(In 10th paragraph, corrects to say 150,000 Uber drivers searched, not enrolled, for insurance plans through Stride Health last year.)
(Reporting by Salvador Rodriguez; Editing by Peter Henderson and Matthew Lewis)