by Ana B. Ibarra
SACRAMENTO — What do hip-hop dancing and health insurance have in common?
For one, you sure do hope that the break dancer busting backflips is covered.
Beyond that, Covered California, the state’s Obamacare health insurance exchange, is betting that one will bring attention to the other.
So, on a stage designed to look like a hospital waiting room, seven dancers portraying ill and injured patients used body pops, flares and fancy footwork to show that “life can change in an instant” — the slogan for this year’s Covered California marketing campaign.
The three-minute hip-hop routine, performed on Thursday, November 8 by local dance crew RS Sacramento outside the Covered California headquarters, kicked off the agency’s fourth bus tour to promote open enrollment. By the end of this week, the bus will have made 23 stops in 16 cities, including Fresno, Bakersfield, Riverside and San Francisco. Local dance troops will also perform in these communities.
“Why dance? Well, for millions, dance is how they stay healthy — Zumba, jazz, hip-hop — it’s universal,” said Peter Lee, Covered California’s executive director, to a crowd made up mostly of his own employees, health care advocates and a handful of reporters.
By targeting healthy people “that need to be harangued, nudged, prodded, more of them sign up and that lowers the cost for everybody,” Lee said later, while sitting behind a table that will double as his desk inside the charter bus. On the side of the bus there are three bigger-than-life images of a man tumbling headlong over his bicycle and ending up in crutches.
It’s all part of the agency’s considerable investment in marketing — which far exceeds the federal government’s own budget for the same purpose in the 39 states that use healthcare.gov.
Covered California wouldn’t say how much it is spending on the bus tour and the dancers, despite multiple requests over more than a week. The agency is funded by fees, equal to 3.75 percent of premiums, that it levies on its health plans.
Last year, the agency spent about $100,000 for more than a dozen murals in communities across the state.
Yet some market experts don’t think that this much “hoopla” is needed in what is now the Affordable Care Act’s sixth open-enrollment period, when most Californians recognize the Covered California brand.
Ed Haislmaier, a senior research fellow with the conservative Heritage Foundation, chuckled when he heard about the hip-hop dancers. He said there are better ways to invest premium dollars.
“Rather than spending money on TV, floats, bus posters and what-not, maybe the way you do this is by paying the agents and giving them an incentive to beat the bushes and bring people in,” Haislmaier said.
In 2017, insurance agents brought in nearly half of the 1.2 million subsidy-eligible enrollees, a Covered California report shows.
For the open-enrollment period for 2019 plans, which started Oct. 15 and ends Jan. 15, Covered California is wielding a $107 million marketing and outreach budget. About $40 million of that is for paid advertising, such as TV commercials, radio spots and billboards.
The advertising dollars don’t include the dancers and bus tour, Covered California officials confirmed.
Covered California’s 2018-19 ad budget is four times more than the $10 million the federal government plans to spend on advertising for healthcare.gov, just like last year.
Lee defended the robust and sometimes unconventional marketing strategies, explaining that the individual insurance market has huge turnover each year and that potential enrollees, who might not be aware of the financial aid available through the marketplace, become eligible for tax credits every day.
Some people, he added, may be considering dropping their insurance because of the elimination of the Obamacare tax penalty, which takes effect next year.
Covered California, which currently has about 1.4 million enrollees, expects to enroll 350,000 new enrollees this sign-up period, Lee said.
For some, the advertising works.
Rob Schultz, the choreographer in charge of the opening number at Thursday’s event, said he was enrolled in a Covered California plan for about a year when his income temporarily dropped and he became eligible for federal tax credits that reduced the cost of his premiums.
A friend who had seen ads told him about Covered California, he said. As a dancer and someone with pancreatitis, he needs insurance because “I can end up in the hospital at any time,” he said.
His experience partly inspired his choreography, Schultz explained.
In Thursday’s performance, one young man cradled his broken arm, and another hobbled onto stage with crutches. A skateboarder stumbled and injured his neck, and a woman sneezed into her arm. There was also a lot of coughing.
Then they broke into a dance.
This story was produced by Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.