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Pirates, Beads and Health Insurance

Gasparilla is Tampa's version of Mardi Gras -- at least when it comes to the beads, the parade and the partying.

During last weekend's pirate invasion, as people walked around in their best pirate costumes, contractors for the federal government were trying to pitch health plans under the Affordable Care Act.

"Our goal here today is to provide education to the younger 18 to 35 demographic, to tell them the importance of health care and why they need it, and how it can benefit them in the future as well as now,” said Bobby Richards, an "in-person assister" who helps people understand their options on the Health Insurance Marketplace.

“You get everyone at Gasparilla, from children all the way up, and it's where you can really get your target audience,” he said.

The fake pirate festival is so ingrained in Tampa culture, even the mayor plays along, surrendering the keys to the city to Jose Gaspar and his krewe once they invade.

Along the parade route, the focus was more on the party, not health insurance.

"I don't think it's the best place. I mean, if you're gonna talk serious, and be serious about it, let's get it at an event that doesn't involve drinking,” said Jason Hasson, who was there were with a group of friends. “Let's talk about more serious topics at a more serious event.”

The assisters said they handed out information to about 750 people at the booth, and to about 1,000 more out in the crowd.

Laura Ottaviano works full-time as an in-person assister who helps people understand the different who plans for sale on and subsidies that can make the monthly premiums more affordable. 

“There's no obligation to sign up for anything or do anything in exchange for the services,” Ottaviano explained.

Gasparilla Pirate Festorganizers estimate about a half-million people go to the events, from the alcohol-free Children's Extravaganza that kicks things off to the rowdier invasion and parade.

Renard Murray, regional administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, understands many people at Gasparilla might not want to talk about the options now available under the federal health law.

"And we say, OK, that's fine but here's some information that you can take with you. The call center is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Murray said. "So if you get home tomorrow and had a chance to think about the short conversation you had at the booth, you can call someone at the call center and have a conversation about what options are available to you."

Open enrollment runs through March 31. To sign up for coverage that kicks in on March 1, people need to enroll by Feb. 15.

According to estimates from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 1.3 million uninsured Floridians are eligible for tax credits to help them buy a health insurance plan on the Marketplace.

Federal health officials report that as of the end of December, around 158,000 Floridians had selected a plan on the health insurance exchange. 

--Health News Florida is part of WUSF Public Media. Contact Lottie Watts at 813-974-8705 (desk) or e-mail at For more health news, visit

Lottie Watts covers health and health policy for Health News Florida, now a part of WUSF Public Media. She also produces Florida Matters, WUSF's weekly public affairs show.