Obamacare March Madness Begins: ‘Sweet 16′ Reasons to Get Covered

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Yes, March Madness is upon the United States. Calculations by global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas put the popularity of the college basketball tournament in perspective: March Madness is expected to cost American companies at least $1.2 billion for every unproductive work hour during the first week of the NCAA Tournament. If only young Americans enrolled in insurance policies through the Affordable Care Act-created marketplaces with the same enthusiasm that they follow the tournament with — or at least, that appears to be the Obama administration’s thinking when creating the March Madness-focused campaign to help boost Affordable Care Act enrollment.

On Monday, the White House announced that Obamacare March Madness has begun, and a countdown on WhiteHouse.gov shows that barely more than two weeks are left on the calendar until the six-month enrollment period comes to a close.

“As millions of Americans scramble to fill out their March Madness brackets, we’ve got another big milestone coming up: the March 31st deadline to sign up for health insurance,” said the White House press release. “If you need affordable coverage, head over to HealthCare.gov and #GetCoveredNow. If you’ve got insurance, help spread the word by voting for your favorite reason to get covered.” Playing off the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Division I basketball division, the Obama administration took full advantage of all the possible puns a March Madness-focused publicity campaign could offer, including brackets.

But while a tournament bracket leads to an eventual winner, the Affordable Care Act bracket is more a recitation of the benefits of health care reform. The administration believes it can parlay the popularity of the president’s bracket into an actual surge in enrollments. Five years ago, President Barack Obama started the tradition of completing a bracket for both the men’s and women’s tournaments, and last year, his picks registered the most views of any blog on WhiteHouse.gov in 2013.

Like the twenty reasons to get covered that the White House listed on March 11, twenty days before the end of the enrollment period, the Obama administration has once again detailed the benefits it has been extolling for months: women cannot be charged more than men; accidents happen; insurance companies cannot discriminate; birth control is free; there are no lifetime limits on coverage; insurance companies are accountable to you; injuries can lead to huge medical bills; check-ups can save your life; you might qualify for free or low-cost coverage; and healthcare should be a right, not a privilege.

A few of the sweet sixteen reasons to sign up for coverage were clearly aimed at uninsured young adults, especially sports fans. Alongside the more standard reasons, the new campaign also included such motivations as it will give your mom peace of mind, you only live once, you never know when you’ll take a hard foul, it’s the smart thing to do, nobody’s invincible, and being uninsured is scary. Based on votes from online users, a winner will emerge from the ACA bracket.

The campaign will feature endorsements from athletes and coaches broadcast through television, radio, the Internet, and social media in hopes of spurring more uninsured Americans to sign up. Already, a thirty-plus second commercial has been uploaded to Youtube and the White House website featuring Roy Williams, the coach of the University of North Carolina, as well as Geno Auriemma, coach of the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team, who told basketball fans to “beat the buzzer, be a winner, and get covered today.”

In the past five months, 4.2 million Americans have signed up for health insurance plans through the exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act, the Department of Health and Human services reported last week. During February alone, 943,000 people enrolled in Obamacare marketplace plans. Still fewer individuals enrolled in February than in each of the previous two months, which each saw more than 1 million people sign up. At the current pace, 2014 enrollments are not likely to meet the Obama administration’s downwardly revised goal for the year of 6 million.

Originally, 7 million enrollments were expected, but the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office lowered the original goal thanks to the software errors and design flaws that caused hours-long wait times, prevented potential customers from creating accounts and completing the thirty-step enrollment process, and sent insurers the wrong information.Using September projections from the CBO, which were made weeks before the rocky Healthcare.gov rollout, the Obama administration expected 1.27 million people to enroll in February alone.

More concerning is the fact that the young people — to whom Obama’s appearance on Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis was meant to appeal — are not enrolling at targeted rates. The report from HHS showed that of the 4.2 million Americans who have enrolled in insurance policies through the state-based insurance exchanges, 25 percent were between the ages of 18 and 34 years old, a level unchanged from the previous reporting period. The Obama administration originally calculated that of the 7 million people who are expected to enroll via the Affordable Care Act’s exchanges, around 2.7 million need to be young adults. It is their premiums that will cover the higher bills for the relatively small number of chronically ill people who sign up for coverage.

Healthcare experts say 40 percent of new enrollees must be young, healthy, and cheap-to-insure for risk pools to be broad enough. Government officials are expecting that the so-called “invincibles,” or young, healthy adults who can help spread out the risk for the program, are procrastinating about signing up, meaning there will be a rush of enrollments in the final weeks before March 31.

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