Let’s clear this up: The edgy “got insurance?” Obamacare ads that have gone viral on the Web were not created by the Colorado state exchange or any other governmental agency, nor are they taxpayer-funded, as two Republican congressmen have claimed.
The ads are the joint product of two nonprofits that have nothing to do with a separate government-funded campaign to get the word out about the new health care exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act.
The nonprofits’ ads target a young audience and — by design — have drawn public scrutiny. One, called “Brosurance” features three guys doing a keg stand. Another features a handful of women doing shots off a snow ski. (Both pictured below.)
Not all of them are as edgy as these (you can check them out for yourself at doyougotinsurance.com). And they were meant to be provocative. The campaign is entirely Web-based, and has been promoted via social media. There are no plans to put the ads in magazines, newspapers, billboards or on the sides of buses.
“The whole intention of these ads is to raise awareness, and that’s what we’re doing. It’s great that more and more people are talking about it,” Amy Runyon-Harms, executive director of ProgressNow Colorado, told the Denver Post.
The ads also have caught the attention of some members of Congress — and not in a positive way.
In a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Oct. 30, Republican Rep. Cory Gardner of Colorado presented a poster-size version of the “Brosurance” ad and asked Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius about it. Gardner claimed at the hearing that it was “an advertisement that a board member of the Colorado exchange has put forward.”
Gardner: I would like to show you an advertisement that’s going on in Colorado right now. This is an advertisement that a board member of the Colorado exchange has put forward. Do you agree with this kind of advertising for Obamacare?
Sebelius: I can’t see it. And again –
Gardner: It’s a college student doing a keg stand. Do you approve of this kind of advertising?
Sebelius: If the Colorado exchange did that — they are a state-based marketplace.
Gardner: Do you approve of this kind of advertising?
Sebelius: I don’t see it. I don’t know what it is, and I did not approve it. This is a state-based marketplace –
Gardner: That’s a pretty big font. That’s a pretty big picture of a keg and you can’t see it?
The Colorado exchange — overseen by Connect for Health Colorado — did not produce or finance the ad, however. In fact, the ad campaign is a joint project of two nonprofits, the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative and ProgressNow Colorado Education, to educate young adults about the Affordable Care Act.
We reached out to Gardner’s office and asked if the congressman was mistaken. Gardner spokesman Alex Siciliano responded via email: “Congressman Gardner was referring to the fact that according to the Connect for Health Colorado website, the co-chair of one of the board and stakeholder groups listed on the website works for the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative. Ashley Wheeland, is listed as a ‘co-chair’ and a health policy attorney at the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative.”
The website of Connect for Health Colorado, the state exchange, lists Wheeland as co-chair of the Individual Experience Advisory Group, which is charged with working “to maximize the quality of the consumer shopping experience on the individual exchange.” The site identifies Wheeland as “Health Policy Attorney, Colorado Consumer Health Initiative,” one of the groups behind the ads. But that information is outdated. Wheeland left the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative in January 2013, long before the “got insurance?” campaign was launched. She is now the health policy director at One Colorado, the state’s largest gay rights organization.
“I am not involved with the [ad] campaign, and have not provided any input,” Wheeland told us via email.
Although there was never any evidence that Wheeland “put forward” the ad campaign, Siciliano pinned the blame for Gardner’s error on the Connect for Health Colorado website incorrectly identifying Wheeland as a health policy attorney for the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative.
“The burden lies with Connect for Health Colorado to keep their website factually correct, the site doesn’t say ‘formerly,’ ” Siciliano wrote to us in a follow-up email. “It’s surprising that Connect for Health Colorado’s website, which is still in its infancy, has inaccurate information about the individuals who work for them.”
While Wheeland is not on the board of directors of either group, it so happens there is someone who serves on the CCHI board of directors as well as the board of directors for Connect for Health Colorado. That would be Sharon O’Hara, executive vice president of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society — Colorado-Wyoming Chapter. She says the ad campaign was never discussed by the Connect for Health Colorado board. Advertising was discussed by the CCHI board, but only in general terms, she said.
“The general concept of trying to reach out to millennials and to ‘young invincibles’ was discussed and the board did direct the staff to find an ad campaign and an ad effort that would, in fact, be heard in that arena,” O’Hara told us. But she said the board — which is “a governance board not an operations board” — never got any more involved than that, and never saw any actual ad copy.
In short, there is no evidence the government-created Connect for Health Colorado had anything to do with the “got insurance?” ad campaign.
Gardner wasn’t the only congressman to botch the source of the “got insurance?” ads.
Republican Rep. Steve Stockman of Texas shared another “got insurance?” ad (shown below) via a tweet that read: “This is an actual taxpayer-funded Obamacare ad.” The ad features a woman standing next to a cardboard cutout of actor Ryan Gosling. The copy reads, “Hey Girl, You’re excited about easy access to birth control and I’m excited about getting to know you. She got insurance. Now you can too. Thanks Obamacare!” A story on the conservative website Breitbart.com also claimed it was a “taxpayer-funded” campaign.
But the ads are not taxpayer-funded.
As we mentioned earlier, the ads are the creation of two nonprofit groups, Colorado Consumer Health Initiative and ProgressNow Colorado Education, and Adam Fox, director of strategic engagement for CCHI, told us neither group received any state or federal money for the ad campaign.
So where did the money come from? Fox said the money came from “private foundations that we applied to for grants.” He declined to name those foundations.
Fox finds the idea of funding scrutiny almost laughable because the campaign is being run on a shoestring. Except for staff time, he said, the only thing that is costing money is the Web site and the expense of hiring a photographer. The ads have not been placed in any newspaper, magazine or other medium.
“We have been pushing it through social media,” Fox said.
CCHI did receive a $25,000 grant from Connect for Health Colorado, but the money was earmarked to partially fund the organization’s design of a mapping tool for the uninsured, to help the uninsured navigate the application process for insurance.
Officials at the federal Department of Health and Human Services and Connect for Health Colorado confirmed that no federal or state dollars were used for the ads (though as nonprofits, foundation donations to the groups are tax deductible).
“Connect for Health Colorado has had no involvement in the CCHI and ProgressNow campaign,” wrote Connect for Health Colorado spokeswoman Myung Oak Kim.
Connect for Health Colorado is running its own open enrollment campaign including ads for television, print, online, search engine marketing, billboards and mobile texting. It has spent $4 million on that campaign. You can see some of its TV ads here, under “television commercials.”
– Robert Farley