Celebrities step in after Trump cuts Obamacare ad budgets

Colbert urges Twitter followers to spread word

By TAMI LUHBY, CNN
CBS via CNN

Stephen Colbert

(CNN) - The Trump administration isn't doing much to let Americans know it's time to sign up for Obamacare, so celebrities are trying to fill the void.

Stephen Colbert, host of The Late Show, urged his Twitter followers to spread the word earlier this week after a former Obama official flagged that enrollment figures are down. More than 49,000 people answered Colbert's call by retweeting his post.

Many celebrities have helped promote the Affordable Care Act over the years, recruited by former President Barack Obama to entice more people -- particularly younger Americans -- to sign up for coverage. But now they are doing it on their own, trying to keep the health law going as the Trump administration has slashed advertising by 90% and cut funding for enrollment assistance by 80%.

Obamacare could use the help. The average number of people signing up daily on the federal exchange, healthcare.gov, for 2019 is down roughly 8% as of December 1 from the same period a year ago, according to figures released Thursday by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

What's more, only a quarter of those who buy their own insurance or are uninsured know when open enrollment ends, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll. In most states, it's right around the corner on December 15.

Colbert isn't the only celebrity stepping up this fall. Late-night host Jimmy Kimmel, singer-songwriter John Legend, actress Kerry Washington and actor Bradley Whitford have also urged people to sign up in recent weeks.

One celebrity who hasn't said much this year, however, is Obama himself. In 2017, Obama kicked off the open enrollment period with an 80-second video on Twitter and Facebook touting many of Obamacare's benefits. He noted that eight in 10 people can find policies for $75 a month or less and brought back one of his favorite marketing points: "That's cheaper than a lot of cell phone plans."

Then, a few days before open enrollment ended, he reminded folks of the deadline on Twitter and Facebook and joined a conference call to thank several hundred people who are helping Americans select plans.

So far this year, Obama's response has been more muted. He noted the November 1 launch of open enrollment on his social media accounts, but amid a flurry of posts urging people to vote in the midterm elections to protect the law and those with pre-existing conditions.

The former President also mentioned open enrollment in public remarks and in a podcast with David Axelrod, who served as his senior adviser.

Overall, sign ups on the federal exchange are expected to drop by 800,000 this year, according to former Obama administration official Joshua Peck, who co-founded Get America Covered, an advocacy group that seeks to boost enrollment.

Total enrollment in Obamacare for 2019 also depends on how its faring in the 11 states, plus the District of Columbia, that run their own exchanges. The state exchanges typically pour more money into advertising open enrollment, allow people more time to pick plans and have more success keeping their numbers up.

In New York, for instance, some 170,000 people selected plans by December 1, compared to 150,000 last year. Nearly 98,000 Minnesota residents signed up for coverage in the first two weeks of November, compared to 91,600 last year.

But in California, which has a very robust marketing campaign, fewer new folks selected plans through November. While roughly 1.2 million enrollees have been renewed for 2019, a similar figure to last year, the number of new consumers dropped about 11% to 90,500.

Covered California Executive Director Peter Lee attributes the decline to a delay in the start of the marketing campaign until after Election Day, the elimination of the penalty for not having coverage and less media attention on Obamacare.

Californians have until January 15 to sign up for policies.

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