(Bloomberg) -- Magic Johnson, who is living proof of the value of early medical detection with health insurance, is broadcasting that message on behalf of Obamacare.

The basketball legend, a member of the 1992 U.S. Olympic “Dream Team” and improbable early HIV/AIDS survivor, appears in television commercials that begin airing Thursday as part of a push to get young adults to sign up for coverage. The ad, soon to be followed by one featuring retired Miami Heat player and kidney transplant recipient Alonzo Mourning, will air on ABC, ESPN, TNT and NBAtv, is funded by the federal government.

New data show that 18- to 34-year-olds made up 24% of Obamacare enrollees in the first three months, far below the level the White House wants to reach by a March 31 deadline.

With less than three months to go, the administration and its allies are ratcheting up organizing efforts in 25 cities such as Dallas and Miami with the largest uninsured populations among states covered by the federal online insurance exchange.

An online campaign includes a six-hour YouTube live-stream event today with some irreverent personalities. Among them: Adam Ward, a mixed martial arts fighter who once bragged about the taste of his opponents’ blood after a bout, and Hannah Hart, a comedian who hosts “My Drunk Kitchen,” a video series in which she cooks while intoxicated.

The fate of Obamacare

Critics of the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature legislative initiative, derided the skew toward older enrollees when the demographic data was released this week. Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, declared enrollment by young adults “a bust so far.”

Dan Mendelson, chief executive officer of Avalere Health LLC, a Washington-based health-research firm, said the trajectory “is on the right track,” though he predicted the administration would “fall a little bit short” of a 39% ratio of young adults it set as a goal last year.

“It will be OK, and the premium increases for next year will be moderate,” Mendelson said.

Massachusetts model

The pattern of enrollment when Massachusetts opened the state insurance exchange that is the model for Obamacare’s online marketplaces suggests younger and healthier people will be the most likely to wait until the deadline to buy insurance, Mendelson said.

In Massachusetts, 24% of people who signed up in the first six months of the 11-month open-enrollment period were under 35, according to an analysis by professors at Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Wellesley College. That number jumped to 34% during the final month for participants to avoid a financial penalty for going without insurance.

Even in the debut year of President George W. Bush’s Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit, healthier beneficiaries were most likely to wait until the deadline neared to enroll, Mendelson said.

More people

WellPoint Inc. , the second-biggest U.S. insurer, is confident in the exchanges even with their early rollout fumbles, Chief Executive Officer Joseph Swedish told investors at a conference this week in San Francisco.

“Despite the near-term uncertainty, we believe exchanges will be growing as a big part of the market,” Swedish said. Insurers are “re-turning on the jets” after suspending their marketing push last year, said Marc Pierce, founder of Chicago-based Stonegate Advisors. The company advises Blue Cross plans and national carriers on communications strategy.

“They need to generate awareness” among young people, Pierce said. “You still have a lot of people that don’t know anything about reform. That hasn’t changed.”

Johnson’s commercial

The appearance of Earvin Johnson, 54, and Mourning, 43, on the TV commercials is part of the effort to raise awareness. The ads, which are being paid for by the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, won’t be the only ones featuring athletes. More sports figures will appear to promote enrollment as the Winter Olympics approach, administration officials say.

Johnson was diagnosed as HIV positive in 1991. Mourning was diagnosed with kidney disease in 2000 and received his transplant in 2003. Both athletes said they discovered their conditions and received treatment because they had health insurance.

“I was at the top of my game,” Mourning says in the ad. “I felt invincible. But when I went for my regular team physical, it turned out I had serious kidney disease. It was caught in time to treat. And lucky for me, I was insured.”

Register or login for access to this item and much more

All Employee Benefit Adviser content is archived after seven days.

Community members receive:
  • All recent and archived articles
  • Conference offers and updates
  • A full menu of enewsletter options
  • Web seminars, white papers, ebooks

Don't have an account? Register for Free Unlimited Access