Life of Service

01.12.14

How a Tough-Talking Former Football Star Is Helping to Save Obamacare

Anton Gunn, a former lineman for the University of South Carolina Gamecocks, has become the persuasive public face of efforts to sell Obamacare to Americans.

Anton Gunn is not your typical government bureaucrat. First off, he's big—really big. At 6'4" and 290 pounds, Gunn excelled as an offensive lineman at the University of South Carolina and was known for laying opponents flat on their backs. Second, Gunn—who just wrapped up his tenure as the director of External Affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, the chief outreach officer for Obamacare—is intellectually provocative, to say the least. He eschews the careful talking points that most federal officials stick to and delivers messages about healthcare like a one-two punch. Finally, Gunn—who lost a brother in the USS Cole bombing in 2000 and became passionate about health care when his pregnant wife was stuck with a $17,000 hospital bill—has lived a rollercoaster of a life, and has let each peak and valley motivate his work. 

While in government, Gunn was charged with informing stakeholders of the benefits of the Affordable Care Act and pushing back on falsehoods about the bill. He recently left HHS to set up his own consulting shop, in part so that he could be an even more vocal advocate for Obamacare than the restrictions of government would allow. I caught up with Gunn about his story, Obamacare, his influences (including the rapper Chuck D), and what the "Mr. Healthcare" thing is all about. 

Joshua DuBois: Anton, how did you get the moniker "Mr Health Care"?

Anton Gunn: It started about a year ago when I was asked by colleagues at the White House to come over and do Affordable Care Act briefings for different constituency groups. I was asked to come over and give a health care briefing on the ACA to almost every constituency that visited the White House. Everyone from the business leaders to the Lions Club to faith leaders, even the Hollywood creative community. No matter how different the group, I was asked to come over and "break down the ACA" so they could understand it. So, one day, one of my colleagues introduced me to a group as "Mr. Health Care," because of my ability to breakdown the law and all of its different parts to so many different constituencies. The next thing I know, a couple of journalists and media personalities started to refer to me as "Mr. Health Care" when they introduced me on their radio shows … so the name stuck.

What were some of your more interesting moments in your travels around the country promoting the Affordable Care Act? 

Wow, this is a hard question, because I have so many interesting moments. In the last three and a half years, I have done more than 850 public events, interviews, or appearances talking about health care reform and the ACA. I think the two that stand out the most were both in the state of Florida. The first was a health care small business tour I participated in across Florida. We hit eight cities in two days from Jacksonville, Gainesville, Tampa, Orlando, West Palm Beach, Sarasota, Ft. Lauderdale, and Miami. It was an amazing experience meeting with so many small business owners who wanted more information about the ACA and its impact on their businesses. They had so much misinformation before we got there, but afterwards to see the excitement and relief that ACA is good for small business made it worthwhile. The second most memorable was being in Miami at a Chinese-American health fair with more than 300 people there and I had to give my ACA presentation with a Cantonese-translator standing beside me. It was the hardest thing I had ever done—to take questions and answer with this audience. I guess I did a good job because afterwards, I took pictures and signed autographs with a lot of people there.

 You've gone back and forth with some opponents of the ACA on Facebook and Twitter. Why do you think Obamacare needs ardent, vocal defenders? 

First thing is, most of the people who talk about the ACA don't even have a full grasp of the facts around the law. I find that especially on social media, people operate off of opinion more than fact. So, I think it’s irresponsible to let rumors and lies to stand in the place of facts. I take pride in pushing back on all of the inaccuracies. 

The second reason why I am so vocal about the law is that it's the biggest piece of domestic public policy in the last 50 years of our country and the vast majority of Americans have no idea how they can benefit from the ACA. So I think it's important that people know what this thing is and what it could mean for their family, business, or community. It would be a shame for the tremendous benefits of the ACA to go unused because people didn't know that they now have a right to quality, affordable health care.

What are some of the most misunderstood aspects of the ACA? 

This question is a big one. I think the most fundamental misunderstanding of the ACA is that it's not a "government insurance plan." The ACA doesn't provide a government plan for people. It's a new way for people to shop for private health insurance, and if you are too poor to pay for private health insurance, the government will help you with financial aid to pay for the insurance. 

 Who were some of your biggest influences in life? 

So many people--the first is Lenora Bush Reese. She was my first boss after I finished playing college football at the University of South Carolina. She hired me at a nonprofit called SC Fair Share. My job title was health care reform coordinator. I was a community organizer working in Columbia, S.C., to help people understand the policy changes to Medicaid, Medicare, and hospital systems. So at 23 years old, I was introduced to the health care world by Lenora Reese, and she was the most amazing leader. 

The second biggest influence in my life is Chuck D, leader of Public Enemy, the legendary and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame hip hop group. Chuck's music and lyrics inspired me to be a leader from the very beginning. I developed my consciousness and my political awareness because of Public Enemy and Chuck D. That's why I asked him and he agreed to write the foreword of my book, The Audacity of Leadership. He and Lenora are two leaders that I talk about as I learned my leadership style. They taught me selflessness, boldness, and investing in future leaders.

 Is there anything about your background in sports that prepared you for your role in politics? 

Sports taught me about teamwork, leadership, and diversity. There is no better place to experience how and why those matter in every aspect of your life than on a college football team. My time as a University of South Carolina Gamecock was one of the most formative experiences of my life. The second part of that was playing offensive line. Playing center and guard was powerful because you are in one of the toughest positions and you have to be among the smartest guys on the field. So I consider my professional life about being smart and tough.

Tell us about your brother, and what his legacy means to you today? 

My brother was killed on the USS Cole in October 12, 2000. He was 22 years old. He was one of 17 people killed in that attack. And through his death is where I learned the true meaning of leadership, service, and sacrifice. He is what inspired me to run for the South Carolina legislature. We need more selfless, authentic, and accountable leaders in this world, and my brother and all who serve our country exemplify selflessness, accountability, and authenticity. That's what I want I want my life to be remembered for. So that's why I do what I do.