Health law campaign to make a play for sports fans

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Are you ready for some Steelers football?

With a side helping of Obamacare ads?

With 97 days and counting until the Oct. 1 open enrollment period begins for the nation's online health insurance marketplace, the Obama administration is in talks with major U.S. sports leagues, including the National Football League, to help spread the word about the new health law.

On Monday, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told reporters, "We're having active discussions right now with a variety of sports affiliates" about paid advertising campaigns as well as public service announcement-style partnerships.

The government views sports leagues -- particularly the NFL, whose schedule coincides with the traditional "open enrollment" period for health plans -- as ideal vehicles to reach out to uninsured male consumers, especially those in the 18-35 age demographic.

"The NFL, for instance, in the conversations I've had, has been very actively and enthusiastically engaged because they see health promotion as one of the things that is good for them and good for the country," Ms. Sebelius said during the press briefing.

Politico, a political news website, reported last week that the administration was in talks with the National Basketball Association as well.

In working with sports leagues, the Obama administration is taking a page from the Mitt Romney playbook. When the former Republican presidential candidate was governor of Massachusetts, his administration publicized the state's health care exchange during Boston Red Sox baseball games, throughout the 2007 season.

The Red Sox marketing effort -- which included a "Cover Your Bases" awareness campaign, full-page ballgame program inserts, even stand-alone kiosks at Fenway Park where people could enroll in a health plan -- "was considered a success," said Robert I. Field, law and health policy professor at Drexel University.

"The idea is to reach as many people as possible [and] draft off the goodwill of the NFL," should such a marketing deal materialize, Mr. Field said.

It also helped that the Red Sox are wildly popular in Massachusetts, giving the state's health care reform effort the benefit of a positive shine, he said. "Teams like the Steelers in Pittsburgh or the 49ers in San Francisco probably would be a wise marketing move."

Joking, the Philadelphia professor added, "I might stay away from the Phillies right now." (The team is playing sub-.500 baseball.)

The sports outreach will be part of a larger, multi-pronged campaign targeting millions of uninsured Americans, whose participation in the new health insurance exchanges is vital to the success of the 2010 health care overhaul known as the Affordable Care Act.

Insurers, hospitals, nonprofit advocacy groups, community health clinics and state governments also will be spreading the word about the health act.

Those who are financially able to obtain insurance but choose not to will face annual penalties, starting at $95 in 2014 and rising to 2.5 percent of household income in 2016.

Also on Monday, Health and Human Services announced that it had launched a toll-free number call center (1-800-318-2596) to answer questions and help with enrollment.

In addition, it had revamped its health reform site (HealthCare.gov) to provide more education for consumers and portals to the 34 state online exchanges that are being operated by the federal government.

States had the option to build their own health exchanges, to enter into a joint agreement with the federal government or to defer fully to the federal government.

Pennsylvania is one of the 34 that will be punting to the feds.

In November 2011, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett announced his "commitment" to building a state-run insurance exchange, but in the intervening months, the Pennsylvania Insurance Department has been wrangling with federal health officials over the operational details of the exchanges.

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Bill Toland: btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625.


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