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Edgy Washington State Ads Urge Young People To Buy Insurance

They drink. They dance. And they love the Sasquatch Music Festival, an annual phenomenon in Washington state. But will young people sign up for insurance on the state's health exchange?

The folks who run the exchange were sponsors of the music festival's launch party last month, reminding people they have until the end of March to pick health insurance and see if they qualify for help paying for it.

And the exchange has put together some ads that feature a pair of fictitious rappers — one thin and white and the other overweight and black — to help make the insurance sale to young people, sometimes referred to as young invincibles.

One ad focuses on the pair talking with Rian, a fit, 26-year-old woman who no longer qualifies for insurance on her parents' plan. "Low Cost Plans. Check It," the ad's tagline says.

The other one, called "Hospital Billz," focuses on a middle-aged couple, the rappers call "The Captain and Patricia." They had been turned down for insurance because of pre-existing conditions and racked up $200,000 in medical debt. But now the couple can get insurance on the exchange.

The ads at least have the potential to work. Washington's exchange has performed well from the start, unlike neighboring Oregon's, and more than 100,000 people in the state have signed up for private health coverage.

But the insurance-hawking rap duo has drawn fire. "People are really offended," said Bill Hinkle, a board member of the Washington Health Benefit Exchange, at a recent meeting. He and other board members asked that the ads be yanked, according to a report by a partnership of The Seattle Times and Kaiser Health News.

Michael Marchand, communications director for the exchange, said the only thing that really matters is people remembering the site's Web address. Enrollment rose by 10 percent in the week after the ads started running, The Times and Kaiser reported.

A commenter on Kaiser's site found the criticism laughable:

"LOL. I'm 26 and Black and don't find the ad offensive at all. It made me laugh ... yeah the way they present the 'rappers' visually is an exaggerated stereotype, but its not like they are perpetuating any behavioral stereotypes, which is usually what most ppl will find offensive. Who cares what a bunch of old (probably White) men think? They aren't the target deomgraphic."

In the quest to appeal to young people, many ads touting states' exchanges have pushed the bounds of propriety. None, more so, probably than some provocative spots designed to appeal to young Coloradans. Keg stands and the promise of free birth control pills were highlighted in two spots prepared by an outside group.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Hensley edits stories about health, biomedical research and pharmaceuticals for NPR's Science desk. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has led the desk's reporting on the development of vaccines against the coronavirus.