Celebrities and word-of-mouth push health law

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — While bass-heavy music pounds, an actor impersonating President Barack Obama dances, mugs for the camera and raps about the health care overhaul, “So tell a friend or a random guy, I’ve got a game-changer right here that saves lives.”

The online video, launched Thursday, is part of a national campaign that entwines Hollywood and social media to encourage Americans, especially young adults, to sign up for insurance coverage.

As enrollments lag around the U.S., Fran Drescher and Kal Penn are among the Hollywood faces being enlisted for the “Tell a Friend Get Covered” campaign, which will urge friends, family members and neighbors around the country to talk to each other about the health care law.

The hope is that familiar faces can do something Obama, thus far, has not achieved — getting millions of healthy, younger adults to enroll for coverage.

“Meaningful discussions between friends is what makes the most difference in people acting,” said Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California, the state-run exchange that is spearheading the campaign.

“When friends tell friends, people know that the voice matters,” Lee added.

The latest marketing strategy comes after a troubled two months for the national overhaul — sign-ups have missed targets and the disastrous launch of the federal government’s website was blamed for discouraging enrollments.

Will it work?

“We trust our friends and neighbors more than any politician,” said Republican consultant Matt David, who was an adviser to former GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman’s campaign.  But “the challenge for President Obama has been and will continue to be his ability to activate his supporters outside of an election. He’s proven he can turn out voters, but turning out support for public policy is a totally different animal and a much heavier lift.”

The Health and Human Services Department reported Wednesday that 364,682 people had signed up for private coverage under the law as of Nov. 30. That is more than three times the October figure but still less than one-third of the 1.2 million that officials had projected would enroll nationwide by the end of November.

The administration’s overall goal was to sign up 7 million people by next March 31, when open enrollment ends. People face a Dec. 23 deadline to sign up if they are to have coverage by New Year’s.

California, the nation’s most populous state with about 38 million residents, runs its own exchange and led the nation with 107,087 sign-ups.

The “Tell a Friend” campaign’s concept borrows from basic political thinking — an individual is more likely to be convinced to make a decision by a trusted family member or friend, rather than a droning TV ad or a stranger knocking at the door.

To get the chatter going, organizers that include other health exchanges will lean heavily on celebrity endorsements, online videos and Internet traffic. For example, Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine, People magazine’s “sexiest man alive” for 2013, urged his followers on Twitter to get coverage.

Since launching the health overhaul, the White House has benefited from celebrity support as it attempts to draw a crowd — Amy Poehler and Lady Gaga are among the actors, comedians and musicians who have pushed the overhaul.

Largely at issue is luring young, healthy people needed to make the overhaul financially viable. Premiums paid by the younger and healthier group, between 18 and 35, are needed by insurance companies to offset the cost of carrying older and sicker customers who typically generate more in medical bills than they contribute in premiums.

Lee said Covered California will absorb most of the campaign’s expenses, although the total has not been finalized. He estimated it would amount to a small fraction of the agency’s marketing budget; Covered California expects to spend over $200 million on television and online ads, billboards, door-to-door visits and other sales pitches and promotions to convince people to enroll.

The campaign’s website features videos, aimed at younger adults, that urge individuals to seek coverage.

In one, a mountain biker is seen crashing on a trail, then clutching his arm. The Obama impersonator, actor Iman Crosson, raps in the video, “If you choose it, just use it, they can’t refuse it, no pre-existing condition could ever make you lose it.” Both videos rely on generalities about the law, and neither mentions specifics about the cost.

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