It’s always big news when President Obama releases his NCAA bracket picks, which he will do on Wednesday. Last year, like most sports fans, he did so-so in predicting the winners. Still, his picks got over 280,000 views, making it the most popular blog all year on WhiteHouse.gov. This year, the administration is squeezing every bit of publicity it can from March Madness, touting “16 Sweetest Reasons to Get Covered,” and updating them daily based on the votes from online users. It’s all part of the administration’s ramped up effort to reach more of the young people it needs to sign up for the Affordable Care Act before the March 31 deadline for open enrollment.
“They’re being very opportunistic and go for it as far as I’m concerned,” says Jared Bernstein, an economist with the Center for Budget Priorities and a former advisor to Vice President Biden, responding to criticism from traditionalists that Obama compromised the stature of the presidency by appearing on the comedy show “Between Two Ferns,” where he exchanged satirical insults with the host.
An administration fighting to get Obama’s signature achievement up and running can’t afford to be genteel. A White House official says that videos touting the ACA in humorous, and sometimes irreverent, ways by YouTube stars and influencers with their own platforms—together with the “Two Ferns” video—garnered 17 million views in the past week and a half. “Those are staggering numbers,” says the official.
“Our administration, just like the country, is full of college basketball fanatics and as we get ready for March Madness, we're putting on a full-court press to remind our fellow fans that there are less than two weeks left to sign up for quality, affordable health insurance,” says Tara McGuinness, White House senior communications advisor. “Athletes and coaches know better than anyone that none of us are invincible—you never know when you might need to have health insurance if you get hurt unexpectedly, whether on or off the court. And that's why their voices will be so effective in helping reach young adults and fans of all ages this week."
Obama met with a group of YouTube content creators on March 6, after which the White House released a video that had them sharing their personal stories and encouraging their followers to sign up for coverage. The White House points out that these “influencers” speak regularly to an audience of tens of millions of subscribers with billions of views. The meeting included Hannah Hart, a leading Internet personality in California, Alphacat, the creator of a spoof rap video, and Nice Peter and Tyler Oakley, all effective communicators outside the traditional media.
The administration has gotten celebrity basketball stars LeBron James, Magic Johnson and Alonzo Mourning to do 30-second spots that will air on ESPN, ABC, TNT and NBA-TV, highlighting the importance of getting covered if only to protect against that stray sports injury that can cost a bundle of money if you’re uninsured.
On Tuesday, HHS (Health and Human Services) is releasing a report on the economic cost of common sports injuries to bolster the message from the athletes. For 25 to 40-year-olds, the estimated average charges for a leg fracture were about $3,403; for an arm fracture about $7,666, substantial bills for the uninsured. There’s also a gender message in the report about the 1.9 million sports-related injuries treated in emergency rooms in 2012. In bicycling, baseball and softball, over 70 percent of the injuries were among men; in football and soccer, over 80 percent, and in basketball, it’s 93 percent.
Young men are the most resistant to signing up for coverage they’re not convinced they need. The technique of using sports figures to reach young people worked in Massachusetts when Governor Romney implemented his health care plan, which was the model for the ACA. Last year, Senate Republicans wrote a letter to the top six sports leagues, discouraging them from lending their name to efforts to promote the ACA. Citing the “divisiveness and persistent unpopularity” of the health care law, the letter said it is “difficult to understand why an organization like yours would risk damaging its inclusive and apolitical brand by lending its name to its promotion.” The letter went to the National Football League, National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, the Professional Golf Association and NASCAR.
All the more reason why the administration has latched on so aggressively to the NCAA as an important tool to reach the audience it needs to insure the ACA’s success. On the video the White House released Monday, Geno Auriemma, Head Coach of the UCONN Huskies, and Roy Williams, Head Coach of the UNC Tar Heels make the pitch about getting health care insurance, and the looming deadline. Also on Monday, the administration released its latest numbers, showing more than 5 million signing up for one of the plans available over the state and federal exchanges. The administration’s original goal was 7 million, with two weeks left to close the gap.
With much of the country riveted by the basketball tournaments, the administration thinks it has found the ideal environment to push the message about signing up for health coverage endorsed by your favorite athlete, and that it will translate into a rush to sign up, get the administration closer to its original targets, and blunt some of the GOP’s criticism going into the midterms. It’s a heavy lift, but it’s not impossible.