WASHINGTON — President Obama teased Ellen DeGeneres about the selfie she took at the Oscars and confessed to leaving his socks and shoes lying around while the first lady is out of town, but before the end of his Thursday appearance on her talk show, he got DeGeneres to put in a plug for the Affordable Care Act.
That's Obama's deal with popular media these days as the president enlists help to boost healthcare sign-up numbers before the March 31 enrollment deadline for coverage this year.
In recent days, Obama has filled out his March Madness brackets on ESPN, joked with comedian Zach Galifianakis and defended his "mom jeans" with radio host Ryan Seacrest — all with the agreement he'd get a moment to make his pitch.
The White House is putting a heavy emphasis on trying to bring young consumers into the fold, and not just because they represent roughly 40% of the uninsured population. Young participants are more likely to pay into the system without drawing heavily on its benefits, a key factor to ensure the president's healthcare reform is economically viable.
Administration officials estimate they have signed up more than 5 million of the 6 million people they hope to enroll by the deadline — a downward revision from the 7 million target before the trouble with the rollout of the website, HealthCare.gov.
As healthcare experts predicted, young people have been taking their time to get on board. Now, the White House is going after them through every media outlet and opinion leader they can mobilize. "Validators," aides call them.
"In order to reach them," said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, "we have to, you know, be creative."
While the White House pushes that message, Republicans continue to argue that Obamacare is fatally flawed and will harm the other end of the age spectrum. As Obama traveled to Orlando on Thursday, the office of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said that, while in Florida, the president should answer questions from seniors.
"The president has focused plenty of time and energy of late on young people," Boehner's office said in a news release. "Isn't it time he directly address older Americans who are bearing the brunt of his healthcare law?"
There were nearly 4 million visits to HealthCare.gov last week, administration figures show, and more calls to the call center March 14 than any day since December. On Wednesday, there were more than 845,000 visits to the website.
The federal government has also spent about $52 million on advertising from January to March, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. In one ad, Miami Heat forward Lebron James urges people to "get covered."
In his remarks on the road Thursday, Obama focused on economic opportunity but put in another plug for the Affordable Care Act. "The deadline to get covered this year is March 31, which is just 11 days away. So if you are uninsured, check out your new choices at HealthCare.gov," he told a crowd at Valencia College in Orlando. "Many of you will be able to get covered for $100 a month or less. If you're already covered, then help get a friend covered."
In the final push, the White House has turned to sports media and stars to play a major role.
This week, NBA All-Star Kobe Bryant did an interview on Dan Patrick's radio sports show in which he encouraged people to get coverage. Former NBA All-Star Grant Hill called in to sports radio shows Wednesday in Miami, Dallas and Houston.
Miami Heat player Shane Battier promoted the healthcare plan in a recent conference call with reporters. As he spoke, the administration released a report showing that nearly 2 million people visit emergency rooms each year because of sports-related injuries.
On Thursday, the White House ran a social media campaign trying to drive traffic to GamePlan4Me.com, a website promoting the sports benefits of having health insurance and featuring athletes such as Bryant, Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia and Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz. NBA forward Kevin Durant sent a #GetCoveredNow tweet to his 6 million Twitter followers.
Some of the pitch men and women are not quite so famous.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Thursday traveled to New Orleans and Fort Worth to highlight local efforts to help people enroll. And White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough recently called in to a sports talk radio show in Cleveland to talk up GamePlan4Me.com.
The White House is "comfortable" with the pace of enrollment, Carney said, but thinks it can round up more young people before the deadline.
When Massachusetts ran its first enrollment, he said, "the demographic breakdown at the various stages of enrollment in the open-enrollment period is mirrored by what we've seen in our figures."
"I don't think anyone would argue that Massachusetts did not get, in the end, either sufficient numbers or the sufficient demographic breakdown that it needed to function effectively," Carney said. "So we feel confident that we'll do the same."