WASHINGTON — A top official at PolicyMic — an internet startup tapped by the White House to sell Obamacare to young people — told two BuzzFeed staffers at the company's New York headquarters Sept. 20 that the organization was considering "free health care" as a prize in a contest aimed at gathering ideas for how to communicate the benefits of Obamacare to young people.
On Wednesday, the day PolicyMic's role in the effort was announced at the White House, the official, PolicyMic Executive Social Editor Elizabeth Plank, confirmed the plan in a series of text messages with BuzzFeed. She said the plan had been dropped due, in part, to difficulties with HealthCare.gov that have truncated Obamacare recruitment efforts at all levels.
The co-founder of PolicyMic, Chris Altchek, strenuously denied the idea was ever discussed in the course of crafting the contest, denied Plank ever made the comments in the first place, and said Plank was not in any of the initial discussions about how the contest would come together. Plank appeared on MSNBC Wednesday to explain the contest.
The White House never heard of the free health care idea, and a top official said the notion it was ever under consideration is "dead wrong." Altchek said "development of the contest was entirely internal to PolicyMic."
Plank also denies she ever mentioned the free health care idea at the New York meeting, but a text message conversation with a BuzzFeed reporter this week appeared to confirm that the free health care idea had been considered.
On Wednesday, as the final version program was being announced as part of a White House "Youth Summit," BuzzFeed's Benny Johnson asked about the free health care plan in a text message to Plank.
"Is the prize for the winner still healthcare [sic]?" Johnson asked.
"It's different now, because of website problem," Plank replied. "So now ppl [sic] with the most upvoted proposals get a response from the white house [sic]."
"So the plan was to subsidize the winners [sic] ACA plan but now the winner gets a personalized message from the WH?" Johnson asked.
"Oui!" Plank replied.
"Liz did not play any role in developing the ACA contest," Altchek said. Her current role is as a face of the contest, through, "working with the team to promote the contest on social media and television."
The final version of the contest, announced Wednesday, calls on users of the site to "Share an idea, project, or proposal for what our generation and the White House can do to make health care work for young people and get them educated about the ACA." The top "three most mic'd submissions will receive responses from the White House," the site reads.
The PolicyMic contest runs from Dec. 3 through Dec. 11. Winners will get some kind of response from the White House, PolicyMic says.
As with many outreach efforts originally designed to help launch the Affordable Care Act, the contest was shortened and revised after the stumbling roll out of HealthCare.gov. Altchek described a grander vision for a contest that would actually fund initiatives to educate young people about the Affordable Care Act and urge them to buy insurance.
"Free health care" was never part of those discussions, Altchek said.
"In September, PolicyMic started brainstorming how we might construct a contest that would engage as many millennials as possible in learning more about health care reform. One of the options we considered was providing a grant to the winning participants to implement their outreach plan that would subsidize their efforts," he said. "There has never been any discussion at PolicyMic internally or externally about any other option other than that format or the current one."
Scheduling demands caused by Obamacare website problems led to alterations.
"The contest changed very little from the initial plan. Our initial vision ran into scheduling challenges when the government shutdown occurred and our contest had to be delayed," Altchek said. "Given the winter holiday, we shortened the timeline and focused on promoting a meaningful dialogue with the opportunity to receive a direct response from the White House."