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Can the NBA Sell Obamacare to the American People?

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Last night LeBron James came through for the Miami Heat. Can he also come through for Obamacare? As Politico’s Kyle Cheney is reporting, the Administration has approached the National Basketball Association about helping to make the public aware of the new health insurance options that Obamacare will make available next year. It’s not clear exactly what the NBA or its stars would be doing, according to Cheney, or even if the league has agreed to participate. (League officials wouldn’t comment.) But if the NBA signs on, a model for the project might be a campaign that the Boston Red Sox undertook in 2007, when Massachusetts was rolling out the health reforms that became a model for Obamacare.

The Red Sox ads for health reform in Massachusetts have a certain legendary status in health policy circles—and for good reason. They leveraged the celebrity status of beloved sports heroes, not to promote the reforms themselves but to make two very simple points: Everybody can get sick and, for the first time, everybody can get health insurance.1 

One particularly memorable ad featured a twenty-something woman names Jaclyn Michalos, who, after obtaining health insurance, got a medical exam that led to a diagnosis of breast cancer. "If I didn’t have health insurance," she said, “I might not be around today to tell my story, so it basically saved my life.” Afterwards, Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield, a knuckleballer and fan favorite, appeared on camera. “Jackie’s story is just one example of how important it is for everybody to have health insurance,” Wakefield said, before explaining in very basic terms how the new system was going to work and where people could go (online) to get coverage. “In a very modest way,” says Jon Kingsdale, who was in charge of the Massachusetts system for its first few years, “partnering with the Sox was like Mandela aligning with Springboks [the South African national rugby team] to appeal to whites.”

As Kingsdale would be the first to say, the Red Sox aren’t the only, or even the primary, reason Massachusetts had so much success getting people—even young and healthy ones facing some form of “rate shock”—to sign up for insurance. Rather, it was part of a broader campaign that involved a lot of direct outreach through intermediaries, like churches, universities, and unions, as well as employers and the health care industry. And that’s precisely the sort of campaign that the Obama Administration has in mind. But the Obama Administration also faces a bigger challenge than Kingsdale and his colleagues did. In Massachusetts, political, business, and health care leaders were united behind the plan. It may not have been their idea of what health care reform should look like, but they understood the value—human as well as financial—of getting people to sign up for health insurance once it was finally available.

That’s obviously not the case today. Across the country, Republican state officials vilify the law. Some South Carolina Republicans even tried to pass a bill nullifying it. (They could have held the signing ceremony at Fort Sumter.) In Washington, Republican members of Congress are trying to undermine the law by denying funding for outreach and implementation. According to a report by Elise Viebeck  in The Hill, a few Republicans have suggested they won’t help constituents having trouble enrolling in the new insurance options. And, as Anne Kim and Ed Kilgore from the Washington Monthly recently reported, they’re even refusing to work with churches on crafting a bipartisan fix to what looks like a predictable, if inevitable, glitch in the law’s drafting.

Nobody expects Republicans to praise Obamacare or to give up efforts at repeal, assuming they feel strongly about it. But, as long as Obamacare remains on the books, don’t even its critics have some obligation to enforce the law in good faith? Shouldn’t they be helping constituents without insurance to take advantage of the law’s new options? Apparently not, which is why Obamacare needs all the help it can get—particularly from some tall guys used to working overtime.

Jonathan Cohn is a senior editor at the New Republic. Follow Jonathan on twitter @CitizenCohn

Update: I have corrected the name of the Politico report (it's "Kyle") and the date of the Red Sox effort, which began in 2007.

  1. To be clear, even with reforms in place, not everybody will be able to get insurance. Health care reform very much remains a work in progress in Massachusetts, as it will in the U.S. as a whole.