HHS Offering Prizes For Videos Promoting Obamacare

The “young invincibles” are what health policy wonks call healthy young adults (18-30) who don’t see being uninsured as a problem. But it is a problem, at least for the success of the Affordable Care Act.

That’s why the Department of Health and Human Services is spending $30,000 on prizes for a national video contest, in a frank appeal to the YouTube generation.

The digital demographic may not know co-pays from co-insurance, but creating and uploading free “content” practically defines that generation. HHS hopes to tap that creativity and essentially get young adults to market Obamacare to themselves.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced the contest during a visit to Legacy, a federally qualified health clinic in Houston.

“We’re encouraging folks to create a song, or a graphic, or a video about the law’s benefits,” Sebelius said. “Like staying on their parent’s plan until they’re 26, not being denied coverage because of a pre-existing health condition.”

If those topics don’t sound super sexy, Sebelius nevertheless seemed confident that the young folks would figure out creative ways to sell it. The contest will also allow people to vote online for their favorites in various categories, and then a grand prize winner will be selected after “a final round of voting and judging” -– presumably by HHS, although the website doesn’t specify.

If the prize amounts don’t seem Hollywood-level (the most anyone can win is $6,500), HHS also noted that the first 100 entrants get a “Stay Healthy” kit, which “includes a t-shirt, first aid kit, sun protection kit and water bottle.”

In Houston, Sebelius made the announcement before community health workers who had gathered for a training session on how to explain Obamacare to people under 34. The training session was run by Young Invincibles, an advocacy group that represents the interests of young people in the fight for health reform.

Sebelius acknowledged that when twentysomethings wake up in the morning, “health insurance is not the first thing on their minds.” But, she says, friends, family members, health care providers and trained organizers can educate young adults about the dangers of an accident or sudden diagnosis.

She talked about her own two sons. The older son is a lawyer and has insurance; the younger one, John, is 29 and a self-employed “entrepreneurial artist.” John attended the Rhode Island School of Design and at one point made the news for designing a controversial board game about prison life.

“He now has a master’s in fine arts,” Sebelius says. “He’s trying to knit together a way to pay his bills while he pursues his art. So, I’ve seen sort of up close and personal how complicated that can be and how difficult that is.”

Although John does have an insurance policy, Sebelius said “it’s always a worry, it’s always a problem. He isn’t in a plan that he’s sure of from moment to moment or day to day. So I know how complicated this can be.”

Texas Governor Rick Perry released a short written statement dismissing the video contest as a gimmick. “If Obamacare were sound health care policy, Secretary Sebelius wouldn’t have to resort to video contests and prizes to tempt people to sign up. Texans are already subject to too much costly and burdensome federal regulation, and Obamacare only makes the problem worse.”

Sebelius also spent part of her visit meeting privately with a select group of Houston politicians and health care stakeholders. She said local leaders in major Texas cities understand what the state leaders do not, that Obamacare will bring relief to overburdened local hospitals and property taxpayers, who foot the bill for the uninsured.

Ed Emmett, a Republican and the county executive for Harris County where Houston is located, stood by Sebelius during a press conference. They were joined by Houston’s mayor, Annise Parker, a Democrat.

“The law is in place,” Emmett said. “People are still arguing about whether it should be repealed or shouldn’t be repealed, but it is in place. And in the meantime, here in Harris County we have an inordinate number of underinsured and uninsured people -– who right now the taxpayers of Harris County are paying for [their] health care.”

Emmett said Texas made a mistake in rejecting the health law’s provisions to expand Medicaid to allow childless adults and those earning below 133 percent of the federal poverty level to sign up. The federal government would pick up the tab for the newly eligible for the first 3 years, and gradually decrease to 90 percent by 2020.

“Personally I think leaving that money on the table, those are our taxpayer dollars that are already in Washington. And if we don’t reimburse through Medicaid then the local taxpayer has to pick up that tab. So, yes, I think it was a mistake. Costs us twice.”

Sebelius said it’s not too late for Texas to decide to expand Medicaid to cover low-income adults.

“We’re open to a program that looks uniquely Texan,” she said. But the impetus will have to come from hospital leaders, business leaders, and faith leaders fashioning a solution with state legislators. “We’re eager to have those conversations but I think they need to start with a Texas group coming together and talking to us,” she said. “This is really not a Washington-to-Texas conversation.”

This story is part of a collaboration that includes KUHF, NPR and Kaiser Health News.