By Ryan Hoerger.
March Madness has taken the basketball world by storm, as usual. This means great game after great game, but it also means commercial after commercial from the same corporate sponsors. Coca-Cola, AT&T, Capital One and others have flooded living rooms with ads in a fully-fledged assault on consumer malleability.
The Department of Health and Human Services has also taken out ad spots across the four channels broadcasting the NCAA tournament in a last-ditch effort to convince people to sign up for coverage through the health care exchanges of the Affordable Care Act. March is a pivotal month for the law—the deadline for people to sign up to enroll in a plan is March 31.
So far, more than five million people have signed up for a healthcare plan through Obamacare, including more than 800,000 in March. The number falls well short of the 16 million projected by President Obama and his policy analysts, but also represents a modest accomplishment, given the turbulent roll-out of the healthcare.gov website last fall. The administration’s new estimate for enrollees by the deadline is six million.
The Department of Health and Human Services has recruited the services of former basketball superstars Magic Johnson and Alonzo Mourning in an effort to increase enrollment through the healthcare.gov website. Ads featuring Johnson and Mourning have been featured intermittently at timeouts during the tournament’s opening weekend.
Johnson and Mourning are not just superstars chosen by the Obama administration for their immense popularity ,although that certainly helps. They’re players whose careers were derailed by serious, unforeseen health issues. This narrative is a primary talking point for the administration’s enrollment efforts because unforeseen, uninsured healthcare needs are passed to the emergency room where they are paid for by society—an increasingly expensive burden on America’s healthcare sector.
Johnson was diagnosed with HIV in 1991 and immediately announced his retirement. Able to afford and obtain the needed cocktail of antiretroviral drugs, Johnson kept his HIV under control and returned briefly to the NBA, earning Most Valuable Player (MVP) honors at the 1992 All-Star Game and winning a gold medal at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. He has continued his HIV activism and has remained in the public eye, serving as an analyst for ESPN and part-owner of Major League Baseball’s Los Angeles Dodgers.
Like Johnson, sudden health concerns became a major problem for Mourning. A perennial NBA All-Defensive Team selection, Mourning’s career was hampered by injuries that forced him to retire prematurely, even though he spent 15 years in the league. Suffering from focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, a life-threatening kidney disorder, he received a kidney transplant in 2003 and missed an entire season. His charitable foundation helps families, especially children, living in at-risk situations.
The ads featuring Johnson and Mourning—neither of whom is being paid to appear in them—discuss the importance of being prepared for the unexpected, because the unexpected can happen to anyone, including famous professional athletes. Unlike the law itself, which is long and confusing, the ads are simple and to the point.
Reigning NBA MVP LeBron James has also filmed ads for healthcare.gov, as the administration seeks to capitalize on his star power to convince more potential enrollees to go online.
The ads have been appearing for months, but the decision to air them nationwide during one of the biggest basketball weekends of the year makes the Department of Health and Human Services seem more like a business trying to reach a target audience for its product than a government agency implementing a program. The Obama administration is desperate for enrollment figures to be as high as possible to use as a “see, I told you so” pick-me-up for the Affordable Care Act and has effectively entered into the market of selling health insurance just as a grocery store would sell you a bag of chips.
Enrollment in health insurance exchanges will be less than originally anticipated because of the website glitches that deterred many from signing up months ago. Enrollment via Medicaid expansion will also be less than projected because Republican-controlled states, such as North Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi, among others, have refused to make that commitment to their citizens.
Enrollment in the exchanges due to the efforts of Johnson and Mourning is less easily quantified. They’re not the best ads in the world, but, considering the flawed rollout of the healthcare.gov website and efforts by Republican-controlled states to reject Medicaid expansion, they can only help.