By David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Enroll America, a nonprofit group at the center of the political fight over President Barack Obama's healthcare reform law, launched a multi-state grassroots campaign on Tuesday to help sign up millions of uninsured Americans for health coverage in the coming months.
The group, which has strong ties to the Obama administration and the healthcare industry, announced plans for more than 50 events in 18 states, including California, Florida and Texas, as part of its "Get Covered America" campaign. The events include canvassing neighborhoods and speeches at churches and other local venues to explain the need for health insurance, particularly among younger people, whose participation could determine whether "Obamacare" succeeds or fails.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates 7 million Americans will sign up for health coverage on new state-based insurance exchanges that will begin enrollment on October 1. The administration needs that figure to include 2.7 million younger, healthier consumers. The total number of exchange enrollees is expected to surge to 22 million by 2016.
Enroll America is part of a much broader national outreach effort that will include hospitals, healthcare companies and providers, community organizers, media groups and federal, state and local officials. The challenge will be to overcome huge public skepticism, particularly for young and healthy consumers, that the new plans are worthwhile.
"The common theme here is that we are beginning our work of talking to consumers and giving them the information that they need to make their decisions come the fall about the healthcare options available to them," said Enroll America President Anne Filipic.
A main objective, she said, is to create "an echo chamber" of information about available healthcare benefits for an estimated 78 percent of nearly 50 million uninsured Americans, who are not aware of the coming changes. To help with the effort, Enroll America plans to expand its staff to 200 from the current 50 and train thousands of volunteers over the coming weeks.
NO DETAILS ON BUDGET
Other reform advocates are gearing up their own campaigns. Organizing for Action, a group created out of Obama's 2012 campaign apparatus, launched its own public outreach effort on Monday with national TV ads on cable news stations.
The White House and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services are also expected to kick off a public education campaign aimed exclusively at young people before the end of this month.
Enroll America's ties to the administration have become a political focus for congressional Republicans angered by U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius' efforts to rally private sector support for its operations.
In a conference call with reporters, Filipic declined to answer repeated requests for details on the group's budget. But a knowledgeable source said later that the cost of the public outreach campaign would range into the tens of millions of dollars, with "at least seven figures" going to paid advertising.
Sebelius says she has spoken to three healthcare companies about the group and asked for financial donations from two other entities -- tax adviser H&R Block and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Republicans claim that her actions may have violated the law or federal ethics rules, a charge the administration denies. Reform advocates fear the uproar will discourage contributions to the group and undermine the reform effort.
"We've seen a lot of enthusiasm and we feel good about having the resources needed to launch a major education and enrollment campaign," said Filipic, a former Obama White House aide.
Enroll America started in 2010, before Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, with the express goal of enrolling the uninsured. It was founded by a handful of patient advocacy groups led by Families USA with an initial budget of $1 million.
Its board has since grown to include representatives from Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Kaiser Permanente, the American Hospital Association and the Catholic Health Association of the United States. Dozens of other companies and organizations are on its advisory council.
(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Michele Gershberg and Dan Grebler)