By Tori Richards | Watchdog.org
Facing a $78 million budget shortfall, California’s Obamacare exchange has spent $1.37 million to fund a campaign with an outreach video featuring exercise guru Richard Simmons gyrating on the floor and hugging a contortionist who is kneeling with his buttocks in the air.
The “Tell a Friend — Get Covered” campaign by Covered California features other celebrities Olivia Wilde, comic Billy Eirchner, Fran Drescher and Tatyana Ali. The centerpiece of the effort was an eight-hour live web stream that ran on Jan. 16.
None of the celebrities were paid for their work, Covered California said.
State Sen. Ted Gaines, a Northern California Republican, fired off a terse letter to Covered California Director Peter Lee demanding to know why he would launch such a campaign at taxpayer expense. The exchange likely will face a $78 million shortfall during the next fiscal year, said Gaines, who is vice chairman of the Senate Standing Committee on Insurance.
He singled out the web stream for special scorn.
“On first review, this long advertisement seems a wasteful, unserious and insulting effort, especially when viewed against the backdrop of at least a million Californians having their health coverage … (canceled) as a result of Covered California’s actions,” Gaines wrote in his Jan. 18 letter. “I question whether this is the time to pour tax dollars into what appears to be an ineffective and embarrassing quarter-day long marketing effort.”
Through the end of last year, Covered California had enrolled 500,108 people. Its 2012-13 budget was $366.3 million, with $74.2 million going toward public relations, according to a legislative report dated November 2013.
Covered California’s 2013-14 budget increased by nearly $33 million with public relations funding going up by $28 million, the report said.
Gaines said in an interview that he doesn’t know where the money will come from to fund the deficit.
“About 900,000 people in California had coverage canceled and were forced to go into the Affordable Care Act,” Gaines said. “They are paying an extra 200, 300, 400 bucks a month. More people are cancelled than actually have insurance through Covered California. Then we see these stupid commercials using taxpayer money and not even focused on the right demographic.”
Instead, Covered California should be focusing on the large Latino population, which traditionally has been under insured, he said.
Director Lee defended the campaign, saying he is utilizing free social media to get the word out — a preferred method among younger consumers, the so-called millennials who are the target audience.
“Covered California’s programs such as Tell A Friend — Get Covered feature content that resonates among millennials and that can be spread by millennials to their friends and loved ones,” Lee said in a statement. “Millennials are not only our key audience, they also are our ambassadors in spreading the word about Covered California.”
The Jan. 16 web video was filmed at a Los Angeles studio and included skits, tips and interviews. During the segment, Simmons — wearing red tights and a black sequined tank top — was joined by a contortionist for a dance competition. Part of Simmons’ routine involved writhing on the ground and peeking through his split legs.
All the while, a DJ played dance music and the program’s hostess sang, “Get covered, hashtag, Uh huh,” and “This is beautiful … I feel inspired to tell my friends to sign up online. That was beautiful, Richard!”
Up next was Simmons’ challenger, a contortionist with hip hop moves prompting Simmons to quip, “I’m going to get sick. Is there a vomit bag like on an airplane?” The pair finished on the floor with the contortionist on his stomach and Simmons nestled near the man’s buttocks.
Gaines called the video “an embarrassment.” He told Lee that he wanted to know the cost breakdown between state and federal dollars to pay for it and whether there was a plan to gauge its value by monitoring the enrollment rate.
He also asked to see the exchange’s entire marketing plan including cost and performance as a “benefit to taxpayers.”
So far, he hasn’t received a response. If Lee ignores his request, Gaines said he would consider issuing a formal demand through his senate committee or holding a hearing.
Lee considers the event a success.
“The campaign has generated and continues to generate substantial social media distribution and wide press coverage,” Lee said.
Contact Tori Richards at tori@firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter @newswriter2.
Editor’s Note: This story first appeared at Calwatchdog.com
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