Covered California video features gyrating Richard Simmons

Covered California video features gyrating Richard Simmons

Facing a $78 million budget shortfall, Covered California spent $1.37 million on an outreach campaign that included a video featuring exercise guru Richard Simmons gyrating on the floor and hugging a kneeling contortionist whose buttocks stuck in the air.

The “Tell a Friend — Get Covered” campaign by California’s Obamacare exchange features such other celebrities as Olivia Wilde, comic Billy Eichner, Fran Drescher and Tatyana Ali. The centerpiece of the effort was a six-hour live web stream that ran on Jan. 16. (See full YouTube below.)

The celebrities were not paid for their work, Covered California said.

In response, on Jan. 18, State Sen. Ted Gaines, R-El Dorado Hills, fired off a terse letter to Covered California director Peter Lee demanding to know why such a campaign was launched at taxpayer expense. The exchange likely will face a $78 million shortfall during the next fiscal year, said Gaines, who is vice chairman of the Senate Standing Committee on Insurance. Gaines’ letter singled out the web stream:

“On first review, this long advertisement seems a wasteful, unserious and insulting effort, especially when viewed against the backdrop of at least a million Californians having their health coverage … canceled as a result of Covered California’s actions. I question whether this is the time to pour tax dollars into what appears to be an ineffective and embarrassing quarter-day long marketing effort.” 

Public relations

Through the end of 2013, Covered California had enrolled 500,108 people. Its 2012-13 budget was $366.3 million, with $74.2 million going toward public relations, according to a Nov. 2013 legislative report.

Covered California’s 2013-14 budget increased by nearly $33 million with public relations funding going up by $28 million, the report said.

Gaines said in an interview that he doesn’t know where the money will come from to fund the $78 million deficit.

“About 900,000 people in California had [previous insurance] coverage canceled and were forced to go into the Affordable Care Act,” he said. “They are paying an extra 200, 300, 400 bucks a month. More people are canceled than actually have insurance through Covered California. Then we see these stupid commercials using taxpayer money and not even focused on the right demographic.”

Instead, he urged, Covered California should be focusing on the state’s large Latino population, which traditionally has been underinsured.

Lee defended the campaign. He said he’s using free social media to get the word out – a preferred method among younger consumers, the so-called millennials who are the target audience.

“Covered California’s programs such as Tell A Friend-Get Covered feature content that resonates among millennials and that can be spread by millennials to their friends and loved ones,” Lee said in a statement. “Millennials are not only our key audience, they also are our ambassadors in spreading the word about Covered California.”

The web stream was filmed at a Los Angeles studio and included skits, tips and interviews. During the segment, Simmons, wearing red tights and a black sequined tank top, was joined by a contortionist for a dance competition. Part of Simmons’ routine involved writhing on the ground and peeking through his split legs.

All the while, a DJ played dance music and the program’s hostess sang, “Get covered, Hashtag, Uh huh.” And, “This is beautiful…. I feel inspired to tell my friends to sign up online. That was beautiful, Richard!”

Up next was Simmons’ challenger, a contortionist with hip-hop moves prompting Simmons to quip, “I’m going to get sick. Is there a vomit bag like on an airplane?” The pair finished on the floor with the contortionist on his stomach and Simmons nestled near the man’s buttocks.


Gaines called the video “an embarrassment.” He told Lee that he wanted to know the cost breakdown between state and federal dollars to pay for it and whether there was a plan to gauge its value by monitoring the enrollment rate.

He also asked to see the exchange’s entire marketing plan, including cost and performance as a “benefit to taxpayers.”

So far, he hasn’t received a response. If Lee ignores his request, Gaines said he would consider issuing a formal demand through his Senate committee or holding a hearing.

Lee considers the event a success.

“The campaign has generated and continues to generate substantial social media distribution and wide press coverage,” Lee said.

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