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Updated: Thu, 20 Mar 2014 09:32:53 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

White House in social media blitz to sell Obamacare to youth



President Barack Obama, photographed at an event on March 5, 2014, has been trying to convince young people to sign up for health insurance before the deadline on March 31. Stephan Savoia/Associated Press

President Barack Obama, photographed at an event on March 5, 2014, has been trying to convince young people to sign up for health insurance before the deadline on March 31. Stephan Savoia/Associated Press

The countdown is on – online, that is, to the March 31 deadline for Americans to sign up for health insurance and the White House is literally watching every second with a digital countdown clock on its blog.

Online is where President Barack Obama’s administration is making many of its sales pitches for the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, and it’s where the White House is appealing to that most challenging of demographics – young adults.

To that end, Obama himself even made a risky appearance on Between Two Ferns, the satirical online talk show hosted by Zach Galifianakis on Funnyordie.com. The president plugged healthcare.gov, the website where Americans can shop for and buy new insurance plans, saying it works well now after its troubled launch in the fall and that young Americans should know they can buy a plan for the same cost as their cell phone bill.

The stunt appears to have paid off for Obama. The video has been viewed more than 19 million times on Funny or Die’s website alone, administration officials said traffic to healthcare.gov jumped 40 per cent in the hours after it was posted online and Funny or Die was the number one referral site.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said it was a “creative” way to reach Americans and that it will be “one of the reasons we get young Americans to enrol in health insurance programs.”

The White House certainly is stretching its creative muscles to get adults aged 18 to 34 to buy insurance before the open enrolment period ends. After March 31, Americans without insurance are subject to a fine.

Young adults are one of the largest groups of uninsured in the U.S. and to help change that, the Affordable Care Act allows youth to stay on their parents’ plan until age 26. But getting those without access to a plan to pay into one is also crucial, some warn, in order to cover the higher costs of health care for older people and to keep premiums stable.

A twist on March Madness

Last week was Funny or Die, and this week’s strategy from the White House is using the hype around the NCAA’s annual March Madness college basketball tournament. It created its own online “bracketology” game where players choose their favourites from 16 reasons for signing up for insurance.

Each reason – like “birth control is free” and “it will give your mom peace of mind” – is accompanied by a GIF (a looping animated video or graphic), most of them of cats, “because the internet loves GIFs of cute animals,” the White House blog explains.

The White House recruited NBA star Shane Battier and NCAA officials for a call with reporters Tuesday and the department of health and human services was circulating statistics about the cost of a broken arm or ankle without insurance and how many sports injuries are suffered by young people.

A few weeks ago, Obama hosted popular young YouTube personalities for a chat at the White House about how to spread the word among their peers. They've been touting Obamacare to their followers through livechats, music videos, Twitter and other methods.

Another online campaign with the Twitter hashtag #YourMomCares features the mothers of celebrities Jonah Hill, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Lopez and Adam Levine. “Seriously, do you want your mothers to have a nervous breakdown? You need health insurance.” “Do it for your mom,” they implore in the video, along with first lady Michelle Obama who says, “We nag you because we love you.” 

So will all this nagging from the White House and pro-Obamacare advocates who are doing their own work across the U.S. to get young people to sign up actually work?

“I think that they’ve done a lot of really great things,” according to Erin Hemlin, a manager at a Washington-based non-profit called Young Invincibles. “Things like that are really helping.” Her organization formed in 2009 to represent youth in the Affordable Care Act debate.

Hemlin said enrolment by youth was slow in October when the online marketplaces first launched but it’s been picking up in recent weeks. Not unlike cramming for an exam, she expects young Americans to sign up with little time to spare before March 31.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of people who sign up in the last week or so … young people procrastinate,” she said.

The most recent government numbers show that 5 million Americans have bought a plan since October. About 25 per cent are between 18 and 34 years old. That’s not as high as the administration would like but they are counting on the final days to bump up the numbers.

Youth expected to procrastinate

“We always expected that this month, March, would be the time that we’d really see young people come out because it’s right before the deadline, and that’s just the nature of being young is that sometimes you wait until things are due to get them done,” said Jessica Barba Brown, communications director at Enroll America, a non-profit dedicated to signing people up for new health insurance.

Its March blitz campaign involves a bus tour, that included a stop at the SXSW music festival in Austin, Texas, and 3,000 events, dozens of them on college campuses. But Enroll America also dedicated $7 million to reaching Americans online and its digital advertising has an “aggressive” focus on young people, Brown said.

Obama’s amusing appearance on Between Two Ferns was effective in getting people’s attention and now there has to be follow through so that people actually sign up in the remaining days, she said.

But not everyone is laughing. The White House’s youth outreach is rubbing one group, Generation Opportunity, the wrong way. It describes itself as a free-thinking, liberty-loving organization of young people.

It countered the March Madness theme with its own “16 reasons to opt out of Obamacare” list on its website. “Thousands of Canadians came to America for their health care to avoid their government-run health-care system,” is among them.

Evan Feinberg, president of the group, told Fox News on Tuesday he takes issue with Obamacare itself and the way it’s been pitched to young adults.

“They’ve really talked down to us and suggested that we’re stupid and that the reasons we’re signing up for Obamacare are because it’s cool or because LeBron James or Amy Poehler or some other celebrity supports it,” he said.

Like it or not, the deadline to sign up is fast approaching and if it’s missed, the next chance to get insurance isn’t until November 2014.

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