Clad in red spandex and a rhinestone-studded, fringed black tanktop with a picture of the fig-leafed Adam and Eve, Richard Simmons implored young people to sign up for health coverage under Obamacare.
"People have to understand, you've only got one body," said the fitness personality, almost tearing up. "If you don't go to the doctor you could get diabetes. Or have a heart attack or stroke."
Simmons was part of a recent six-hour Obamacare variety special organized by the "Tell a Friend — Get Covered" campaign. The campaign is a collaboration of 17 state exchanges led by Covered California, in partnership with Enroll America and other organizations. The idea is not just to encourage individuals to enroll in coverage, but to encourage them to pass along the message.
Enrollment in the Affordable Care Act has always been a grassroots effort, with "navigators" and volunteers working on the ground across the country to help people understand their options and sign up for new coverage. But as the open enrollment period enters its final two months, pressure is increasing to get the word out to as many people as possible. As organizers ramp up their efforts, they are increasingly calling upon those enrolling to spread the word, with the message shifting from "get covered" to "tell your friends to get covered."
"We're expanding our grassroots efforts," said Justin Nisly, national press secretary for Enroll America. He says the organization recently added 66 new organizers in states across the country — a 34 percent increase in staffing. Enroll America also expanded its digital ad campaign at the beginning of the year, from $5 million to $7 million — a decision based on data-driven evaluation of the most effective means of outreach.
"We're reaching out to everyone — not just to the young, but a significant amount to them," Nisly said.
Yet the organizers can only reach so many people. To boost enrollment, the administration is relying on another tier of grassroots messengers as well: consumers themselves.
"Tonight, I ask every American who knows someone without health insurance to help them get covered by March 31," President Obama said in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night. "Moms, get on your kids to sign up. Kids, call your mom and walk her through the application."
At the most recent estimate, about 3 million people had signed up for private coverage through the ACA exchanges. This is slightly behind pace to reach the White House's original goal of 7 million enrolled by March 31, but not by much, especially given the significant setbacks due to website problems in October and November.
The main focus now is continuing to increase enrollment ahead of the deadline, particularly among young adults, who tend to be healthier and are thus necessary to keep premiums low. As of the end of December, 24 percent of enrollees were between the ages of 18 to 34. This is below the ultimate target of around 40 percent, but large numbers of young adults are expected to enroll last-minute.
At first glance, a six-hour daytime livestream about health insurance may seem a questionable way to capture the attention of millennials. Richard Simmons is probably not the most relatable advocate to twenty-somethings.
However, Covered California Executive Director Peter Lee explains, the event was really intended to create shareable content moving forward, which can be catered to different demographics — the main targets being young people, moms, and Latinos.
"There might be three people who watch the full six hours," Lee said. "[But] from this, we'll be taking 20 second slices for Vine and images for Instagram — it's much more about creating more content and material that's a hook for discussion."
The idea is to get people talking about enrolling in the ACA, with the help of celebrities from Lady Gaga to Marlon Wayans to glitz up the topic.
"Musicians, actors, athletes — they're sending out the message to friends and followers saying this is important to me," Lee said.
He says the ongoing effort aims to convey three main ideas about enrolling in coverage: It's affordable, it's easy, and there are deadlines. Once individuals understand that, the hope is that they'll share the message with friends and family.
"It's about a constant drumbeat of information," Lee continued. "It really is about a call to action."