It's Obamacare Night Live!

It's hard to make health insurance funny. Even with celebrities involved.
More

Comedian Billy Eichner has gained fame from an online video series in which he manically races around New York City and accosts strangers with inane questions. ("What's your favorite Christmas carol?!" he demands of one elderly tourist). His newest video features another one of these zany, rapid-fire interrogations, but the content seems a little less pop-culture and a little more PBS.

“Ok, I'm going to give you a fact, and if you think that fact is about Obamacare, say, 'Obamacare!' And if it's not related to Obamacare, you say, 'Shut up!'” he squawks to Olivia Wilde. “Away we go ... preventative care is now free!”

“Obamacare!” she responds excitedly.

The video is part of the new “Tell a friend, get covered” ad campaign created by Covered California, one of the 16 state-based exchanges that is getting federal funds to advertise the Affordable Care Act.

Covered California

Since launching in December, the group has also put together a Scandal parody with Jennifer Hudson; a series of selfies in which celebrities hold up signs that read, “get covered;” and a video of a Lady Gaga song dubbed over President Obama’s speeches, so that it looks like the president is singing along.

In their newest crusade, today the Get Covered initiative will descend on the YouTube studios in Los Angeles to produce a live, six-hour, Obamacare-themed variety show. It will combine “Saturday Night Live-type skits” with the perfect complement to any comedy routine: educational segments about risk pooling in health insurance markets.

The stars of this ensemble will include MTV host Karli Henriquez, Mixed Martial Arts fighter Adam Ward, and Hannah Hart, star of the YouTube series My Drunk Kitchen, in which Hart cooks while intoxicated. They will all be talking about “why insurance matters to them.” If this sounds like your idea of a dream Thursday, you can watch it all at www.tellafriendgetcovered.com.

This is on top of a national onslaught of new “brosurance” ads geared toward frat boys, as well as airtime the White House has bought during the Winter Olympics in order to promote insurance. The goal of all of these efforts is the same: To get more young people to sign up for Obamacare, for the good of the country—and for insurers’ bottom lines.

“We have one job: to make this marketplace work,” said Covered California’s executive director, Peter Lee, by phone. The goal is to get young people talking. “This is about having a drumbeat of discussion from the most trusted friends you have. While we're using celebs, it's about encouraging friends to tell friends.”

Nearly 2.2 million people signed up for the health insurance exchanges—the new, non-employer-based insurance plans that are available direct to individuals through Healthcare.gov—in the period leading up to Dec. 28. But that’s only about 65 percent of the Obama administration’s goal for signups during that period, which is troubling for a couple of reasons.

One, this is the first time that many sick people have had the option of getting health insurance, because before Obamacare, insurers could discriminate against people with medical problems. It stands to reason that many of the people who have signed up so far are in need of some sort of medical care, i.e., they are sick. However mildly, but they are.

The other problem is that the new enrollees are one-third older people, ages 55 to 65, and only one-quarter younger people, ages 18 to 34. The Obama administration would have preferred for those percentages to be reversed. Health insurers need young people to enroll in order to balance out all the sick people whose medical bills they’ll now be paying. And we need insurers to make enough money so that they don't drive up premiums or pull out of the exchanges altogether. But because insurance companies can’t ask people about their health conditions anymore, the closest proxy they have for health, rightly or wrongly, is youth.

As an experiment, I went on Healthcare.gov and input my actual demographic information: late 20s, resident of Virginia, not eligible for subsidies to help me with my premiums. The site told me I could get a mid-range “silver” plan for about $230 to $245. Then I tried it again, except this time I told it I was 30 years older. The price for similar plans rose to $550 to $570. Insurers are clearly counting on older people being more expensive, and they are charging them as such.

It's worth noting that some analysts think the ages of the people in the new exchanges won't matter that much when the dust settles after the enrollment deadline in March.

The Kaiser Family Foundation, for example, thinks that with the current demographics, the premiums of consumers on the exchanges would only be about 2.4 percent more expensive than they would have been with a younger risk pool. And for the first few years of the law, the Affordable Care Act provides some financial cushions for insurers in case they don’t get the right mix of healthy and unhealthy customers right away.

But even though a slightly geriatric consumer base may not result in the total implosion of Obamacare, insurers may still hike up their rates slightly if they're mainly only attracting baby boomers.

“From a wonk perspective, if you end up getting a lot of older, healthy people, you're in great shape. But the quickest barometer of this mix is age distribution,” Lee said. “That's going to be what plans will substantially use to determine what the premiums will be in 2015.”

Thus: Ryan Gosling-themed insurance posters. (Hey girl, I'd like to be your in-network provider.)

These types of youth-focused ads have been derided as being cheesy. Lee says they work, though. According to the campaign, "Tell a friend, get covered" has garnered a combined 41 million shares, retweets, and pageviews since it launched two months ago.

Covered California insists that they’re thinking about more than just college kids—among their other targets are Latinos, they said, as well as moms who might urge their kids to sign up for health insurance. A typical “mom” ad, for example, is this father-daughter duo singing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

Figuring out how to make the commercials engaging was a challenge, Lee said, especially since health insurance is a product that has about as much sex appeal as a sweater vest.

Lee doesn't exactly have a comedic background: He once worked for the Obama administration, and he told me his expertise is in “health plans, healthcare delivery ... and I’m learning a lot about social media.” 

To help with the silliness, Covered California enlisted Millennial-focused media companies like Maker Studios and Simply New. But Lee thinks that as people learn more about Obamacare, its plans will sell themselves.

“On one hand, you need to draw attention, but on the other hand, it's not only dry, it's serious business,” Lee said. “Some people who don't have insurance are living in fear or living embarrassed. People don't know the basics still. They want insurance, they just don't know they can afford it.”

Jump to comments
Presented by

Olga Khazan is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Sad Desk Lunch: Is This How You Want to Die?

How to avoid working through lunch, and diseases related to social isolation.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Health

Just In