Richard Simmons Wants YOU to Tell Your Friends About Obamacare

The administration’s latest bid to boost enrollment is aimed at getting it to go viral.

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 09: Actor Richard Simmons attends 'Swim for Relief' Benefiting Hurricane Sandy Recovery - Day 2 at Herald Square on October 9, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images)
National Journal
Sophie Novack
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Sophie Novack
Jan. 30, 2014, midnight

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.”

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