There are few numbers weighing as heavily on the shoulders of the Obama administration as the number of days before the Affordable Care Act-mandated insurance exchanges open for enrollment on October 1. The number of unemployed Americans is uncomfortably high and the number of zeros in the federal debt is undeniably weighty, but the number of people that sign up for coverage will ensure the success or failure of the reform and the safety of President Barack Obama’s legacy. The White House even keeps track of the number on an “Official Affordable Care Act Enrollment Countdown” calendar, which is emblazoned with an official seal. As of Wednesday, there were 69 more days until the Affordable Care Act-mandated insurance exchanges open.
To ensure that millions of uninsured Americans — especially young, cheap-to-insure Americans — sign up for coverage, the administration has charged around two dozen political analysts and data-crunching technocrats to educate the population regarding Obamacare, which is the biggest health care overhaul since Medicare. Already, the stakes for the Obama administration are high since the reform has become one of the most divisive acts of Obama’s entire presidency. Furthermore, the recent delays, including the one-year postponement of the employer mandate, have provided more fuel for the opposition’s claim that the implementation of the law will be a “train wreck.”
The Obama administration needs to convince young, cheap-to-insure people to sign up for insurance on the superstore-like exchanges this October in order to balance out older or sicker patients that are more likely to sign up for health insurance as soon as possible. Their insurance premiums cover the big bills for the relatively small number of sick people. According to estimates made by the Obama administration, approximately 7 million people will sign up for coverage via the exchanges in 2014 and about 2.7 million of those enrollees need to be young, cheap-to-insure, Americans in order for the system to work.
Mission Obamacare has one, very clear goal: get people to enroll in the government-run marketplaces, and this mission is one of the most important tasks on the White House’s to-do list this year. Here’s a peek at what Mission Obamacare looks like:
1) Spreading the message at bourbon festivals: Kentucky has chosen to set up its own exchange, rather than leave it to the federal government. To spread the word, state officials have picked out three bourbon festivals for exchange-related outreach, Kentucky spokeswoman for health reform Jill Midkiff told The Washington Post for an article entitled “Will bourbon help Kentucky swallow Obamacare.”
To reach the desired audience — young Americans — government officials must go to places where they already go for information, like YouTube and Twitter, and the leaders of the government’s public relations campaign also realize that campaigns must be tailored to regional tastes.
2) Hipsters in Oregon: This state chose a slightly different approach; Cover
Oregon — the state’s central marketplace created a YouTube-circulated music video entitled “Long Live Oregonian,” which featured a young man, dressed in plaid and jeans, singing in front of a backdrop of beautiful scenery. The message was clear: your “Oregonian” lifestyle needs affordable health care to be complete. However, the only reference to the exchanges came in the final seconds, when the words “Cover Oregon” and the accompanying website were flashed across the screen.
3) Sponsoring portable toilets: Not all public relations attempts have been as jaunty as Oregon’s music video. In neighboring Washington State, officials are considering sponsoring port-a-potties at concerts to inform the public about the benefits of Obamacare, in an attempt to take advantage of the state’s thriving music scene. Trips to public restrooms may not be the most memorable part of anyone’s concert experience, but scrawling (and reading) bathroom graffiti is not unpopular.
4) Reaching out to Hollywood: Senior White House officials met with a group of Hollywood entertainers — including comedian Amy Poehler, actor Jennifer Hudson, and representatives for Oprah Winfrey, Alicia Keys, and the website Funny or Die — on Monday to discuss how to use pop culture to convince young Americans to enroll in the health care exchanges. According to the White House, the Hollywood entertainers are interested in helping the administration to explain the health care law and the exchanges. In fact, Funny or Die, a comedy video website with more than 19 million unique monthly users, has already begun creating several videos featuring celebrities
“The reach of these national stars spreads beyond the Beltway to fans of their television shows, movies, and music – and the power of these artists to speak through social media is especially critical,” a White House official told Reuters. The biggest message the administration has to communicate, aside from perhaps educating the masses regarding the implications the reform will have on their access to health care, is one that is able to counteract the skepticism that the new plans are worthwhile.
5) In Connecticut, airplanes are flying banners across beaches: ”It’s going to be rocky in this first year,” Kevin Counihan said last month at a board meeting of the Connecticut Health Insurance Exchange. “This is not simple. It’s highly complex. It’s unprecedented, and it’s not going to be smooth,” added Counihan, the governor’s hand-picked chief executive of the whole program.
In what may be the most logical way to distribute information to a vast number of people in a single attempt, the state has decided to use messages in the sky.
6) Good, Old-Fashioned Spreadsheets: Tara McGuinness, the chief communications adviser for the political analysts and data-crunching technocrats, has created a spreadsheet to keep track of the thousands of Walgreen (NYSE:WAG) pharmacies that will distribute educational materials. Walgreen, the largest U.S. drugstore chain, and Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, which is made up of 38 state and local health plans, including 14 owned by WellPoint (NYSE:WLP), announced Wednesday that together they would set up an education website as well.
“There’s a lot of confusion, a lot of questions, and it’ll take a tremendous collaborative effort to make sure people have the information they need to make informed choices,” Walgreen’s Chief Strategy Officer, BradFluegel stated in a press release. But the promotional materials distributed by Walgreen will not recommend any specific plans and customers will not be able to enroll in stores.
7) Reaching out to NFL: Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was hoping that the National Football League could help make Obamacare look cool. She told reporters at the end of June that the NFL was “enthusiastically engaged” in talks about a partnership to encourage people to enroll on the new health insurance exchanges. However, within days, the league had contradicted her statement, saying that the league “currently [has] no plans to engage in this area.” This assertion came after the NFL received a public warning from Republican Senate leaders, who also sent letters to five other professional sports leagues suggesting they not promote Obamacare. The letters were cosigned by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Texas Senator John Cornyn.
8) Revamping the Portal: In its initial iteration, the application form, which was required for people to join an exchange, was 21 pages long. However, in April, the administration announced a new three-page application for individuals and a seven-page application (plus a four-page appendix) for families. The portal — healthcare.gov — got a makeover as well. As The New York Times reported, the White House hopes the refreshed Website, with user-friendly information, will make shopping for health care as easy as purchasing a book from Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN).
9) A strike force: Called “red teams,” groups of computer specialists have been assembled to confront technical problems. A former deputy national security adviser — Denis R. McDonough — is charged with overseeing the entire effort. “The way I am attacking this is the way I attacked a lot of problems at the national security staff,” he said in an interview with the Times. “We have a strategy. We have a target. It’s my job to make sure that everyone is keeping focused on the target.”
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