Washington healthcare exchange puts on sweepstakes for Sasquatch music festival tickets

Jim Huffman Dean Emeritus, Lewis & Clark Law School
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Washingtonians (the Pacific Northwest variety) have been receiving an unsolicited email message informing them that they can “snag free VIP tickets to the Sasquatch! Music Festival.” To have a chance at two grand prizes or to be among 100 first place winners, Washington residents need only visit the Facebook page of Washington Healthplanfinder and click on the “enter sweepstakes” button. No purchase is required.

Well, actually, it is now too late to have a shot at the 100 first place awards – tickets to a Washington Healthplanfinder-sponsored festival launch party that took place on February 3rd, but Washington residents have until the end of March to compete for the grand prizes of free passes to both weekends of the Sasquatch! Music Festival.

At least one recipient of the aforementioned email has filed a complaint with the Washington Attorney General questioning whether the solicitation and sweepstakes are in compliance with the state’s rules and regulations, and noting that at least one 12 year old was a recipient of the solicitation. Not surprisingly, the AG’s office has advised the complainant that due to a surge in consumer protection-related complaints it could take longer than the normal four weeks to begin processing the complaint.

In the meantime, it is worth asking why government is spending taxpayer dollars to host a festival launch party and sponsor a sweepstakes designed to encourage people to sign up for a program that will require the expenditure of even more taxpayer dollars.

Washington Healthplanfinder is the creation of the Washington Health Benefit Exchange established by the state of Washington under the Affordable Care Act. As the email promoting the sweepstakes points out, “Washington Healthplanfinder is the new way to get health insurance that fits your budget, and get help paying for it too.”

Ignoring that people should need no help paying for health insurance that ‘fits their budget’, why is government staging a sweepstakes giveaway to entice people to sign up for government largess? I don’t recall that the toaster premiums offered by the banks of my youth came with bank-funded savings accounts. Back then, people knew what was in their self-interest and would have signed up for such free money without the toaster.

But apparently not today. It seems the folks at the Washington Health Benefit Exchange have concluded that many Washingtonians will not sign up for health insurance, even if the government is paying some or all of the cost. They need the possibility of free concert tickets to even start thinking about doing what government officials know to be in their best interests.

While it may seem perfectly harmless for government to sponsor a concert ticket sweepstakes, there is something unsavory about government enticing (dare I say bribing) people to enroll in a program they would otherwise choose to forego.

Even if the state of Washington is complying with the rules that govern business, and even if the state is not enticing minors to enter a sweepstakes expressly closed to those under 18, it is acting with the confidence that state officials know best what is in the interest of individual Washingtonians.

The fact that many people have chosen not to purchase health insurance through the Washington Health Benefit Exchange is understood by those who run the exchange as evidence of individual irrationality, not as an act of free will. Those people need to be bribed to choose what government officials have determined to be in their self-interest. But there is a reason bribery is illegal in politics and the private sector. It distorts freedom of choice and empowers those with the means to entice.

The sweepstakes Facebook page says it all. Beside a photo of a swimmer whose trunks are snagged on his boat, risking exposure of all, we are told that not until that moment did he “realize he needed to be covered in more ways than one.” Government’s role, it seems, is to get us to that moment of realization. And in the case of health insurance and health care, if a little bribery doesn’t get people to do what is best for them, there is always the no-choice option of single payer national health care. Stay tuned.