Chicago stations cash in to sell health coverage at a premium

Last Friday Chicago’s top-rated morning news program cut short its final hour to air a 30-minute government-sponsored infomercial about health insurance.

Viewers who tuned in to see "WGN Morning News" at 9:30 a.m. were subjected instead to "Get Covered Illinois: A Half Hour Special,” part of a monthlong statewide enrollment campaign for the Illinois Health Insurance Marketplace.

Get CoveredSome of them weren’t happy: “I am so pissed off you gave up 30 minutes to advertise Obamacare,” a fan wrote on the show’s Facebook page. “Disappointed that you gave up the last ½ hour to the get covered illinois bullsh*t. Please never allow that to happen again. Very tacky infomercial, I switched the channel,” wrote another.

In addition, every day for the last month, “WGN Morning News” announcer Mike Toomey has been doing live reads during the 9 a.m. hour promoting the website.

The Tribune-owned station has not been alone among local media outlets in cashing in. Some believe it comes close to crossing a line of objectivity. “It’s fascinating to see such huge government money being pumped into TV stations for an unpopular government program — and local TV stations essentially promoting it,” one skeptical insider said.

Other stations' efforts included:

  • Val Warner, host of ABC 7’s “Windy City Live,” appeared in a public service announcement urging viewers to “get the facts and get covered.” Earlier in the week, Brian Gorman, director of field outreach for Get Covered Illinois, appeared as a guest on “Windy City Live” to explain the program and answer questions.
  • CBS 2 hosted a Get Covered Illinois “Enroll-a-Thon” during local news time from 5 to 5:30 p.m. and from 6 to 6:30 p.m. Monday. Viewers were invited to call in to start the enrollment process.
  • NBC 5 and Telemundo hosted a half-hour “NBC Health Care Forum” at 6 p.m. Saturday with Get Covered Illinois leaders discussing health coverage programs and services, and key enrollment deadlines and opportunities for the uninsured.
  • Public service announcements also were recorded by Maury Povich, Pete Wentz, Stacey King, Arsenio Hall, Penelope Menchaca, Fernando “El Feroz” Vargas, Jared Borgetti, Yuri Sardarov, Chris Stolte and Dave Eigenberg.

“As we get down to the wire for enrollment, it is critical that we reach uninsured residents and motivate them to take action to get covered before the March 31 deadline,” Jennifer Koehler, executive director for Get Covered Illinois, said in a statement. “Get Covered Illinois is on the road and conducting outreach to increase awareness about health coverage and connect with uninsured residents in their communities.”