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Recruiting Local Sports For Team Obamacare

Politico Pro, June 27, 2013

By Jason Millman

President Barack Obama’s love of the Chicago White Sox is no secret, but he’d probably be an even bigger fan if his hometown baseball team goes to bat for Obamacare.

It’s not just the Obama administration looking to join forces with professional sports leagues to enroll people in health insurance. Some states are also looking to get a lift from local teams this fall, when millions can start signing up for coverage.

That includes Obama’s home state of Illinois, which is building its health insurance exchange with help from the Department of Health and Human Services. Gov. Pat Quinn’s office has expressed interest in teaming up with local sports franchises to spread the Obamacare word, and the state’s bringing on a marketing firm in the next couple of weeks to map out a comprehensive outreach strategy.

“The Illinois Health Insurance Marketplace is planning a robust outreach campaign leading up to the Oct. 1 start of open enrollment for the [Affordable Care Act],” Quinn spokesman Mike Claffey said. “This will include partnerships with many trusted community groups — and as part of this statewide effort, we definitely plan to reach out to the many popular home teams in Illinois and look for ways to magnify our message.”

It’s a similar story in Washington, where exchange officials say they haven’t asked the local teams to come on board yet, but it’s on their to-do list.

“D.C. is a very sports-oriented town with the Redskins, Nationals, Wizards, Mystics, United, Freedom [and] Capitals, so we would want to work with some or all to reach key audiences,” emailed Richard Sorian, director of communications for the D.C. Health Benefit Exchange Authority.

And what about the Baltimore Orioles and Ravens? Maryland so far is coy about its plans on marketing and outreach, scheduled to ramp up this summer.

“Maryland is still reviewing potential partnership opportunities,” said state Health Secretary Joshua Sharfstein, chairman of the Maryland exchange board.

With just three months until the Obamacare exchanges open for enrollment, much of the focus on the law’s implementation now turns to how the White House and supporters get people to sign up for coverage amid strong partisan opposition.

The idea of enlisting beloved local sports teams and athletes to boost enrollment in government-mandated coverage was pioneered by Massachusetts, whose 2006 health law is considered a precursor to Obamacare. Boston Red Sox players and the organization joined the state in encouraging people to sign up for new coverage as soon as it became available, and Massachusetts officials are now weighing a similar approach with Obamacare’s full launch on the horizon.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius disclosed earlier this week that the administration is in talks with the NFL to promote the law. The administration has also broached the idea with the NBA, POLITICO reported last week.

Sports are supposed to be the great uniter, but the question is whether Obamacare is still too hot to touch. Reports of potential Obamacare sports partnerships were met with derision from some of the law’s sharpest critics.

“This potential partnership between the Obama administration and pro sports leagues — such as the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL — to shill for the partisan and controversial Obamacare law should be rejected by the commissioners and players of each league,” Americans for Tax Reform said in a statement Tuesday. “The Obamacare law contains 20 new or higher taxes, including one that will particularly harm families with special-needs children.”

The Obama administration isn’t saying much about the progress of its talks with sports leagues. But a top health official working on outreach said the sports partnerships are intended to go beyond partisanship.

“It isn’t about politics — it’s really about health and improving health, and that’s why the partners that we’re talking to feel that we have missions that are aligned,” said Mandy Cohen, a senior adviser at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

“There have been multiple stories in the paper about how the NFL struggles with their own internal players and making sure they have proper health care coverage,” Cohen added. “So I think there’s just an alignment of mission across the board, whether it’s sports leagues or it’s pharmacies and hospitals.”

Jim Andrews, an IEG vice president who works on sponsorships, said the sports leagues are likely reviewing potential Obamacare partnerships just as they would any other commercial sponsorship. And if the leagues do sign on with the White House, Andrews said they should be ready to explain their partnerships when the inevitable backlash comes from some corners.

“I think if I were on the league side and considering this, I’d draw a clear distinction saying we’re not being asked to engage in political activity,” Andrews said.