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How Jimmy Kimmel’s Emotional Plea Could Influence Healthcare Debate

After Jimmy Kimmel choked up during his monologue as he described his newborn son’s heart surgery, he made a plea for access to affordable health care.

“No parent should ever have to decide if they can afford to save their child’s life,” he said. “It just shouldn’t happen. Not here.”

The clip quickly spread online on Monday night and into Tuesday, and it may be just the type of moment that has an impact on the current healthcare debate, as House Republicans try to amass the votes for their latest version of a bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.

Former President Barack Obama even weighed in on Twitter, writing “Well said, Jimmy. That’s exactly why we fought so hard for the ACA, and why we need to protect it for kids like Billy. And congratulations!”

“Watch & prepare to tear up. Thanks Jimmy Kimmel for sharing your story & reminding us what’s at stake w/health care,” Hillary Clinton tweeted.

Kimmel paused from his normal monologue jokes to give a serious recounting of his son’s surgery — an unusually personal moment for the ABC late-night host. What was also unique was that he waded into the current political debate in Washington, telling his audience that before Obamacare, “if you were born with congenital heart disease, like my son was, there was a good chance you would never be able to get health insurance because you had a pre-existing condition.”

The current Obamacare replacement legislation would, in the eyes of critics, weaken protections for those with pre-existing conditions, according to PolitiFact. Under the revised Obamacare replacement legislation, insurers couldn’t deny coverage to those who are or who have been sick, but states could get waivers that would allow them to charge more based on a person’s health history. Defenders of the current legislation point out that it also requires that states who do take the waiver to also set up high-risk pools to cover those with pre-existing conditions, but there are still doubts over just how effective those pools are.

In his monologue, Kimmel seemed well aware of a nuances of the legislation.

“If your baby is going to die and doesn’t have to, it shouldn’t matter how much money you make,” he said, while adding that such a concept should not be partisan and enjoys wide agreement among Republicans and Democrats.

Support for Obamacare, and its ban on insurers discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions, has been on the rise since the start of the year. And before Kimmel’s monologue, there already were doubts that the House bill would be able to garner enough support for passage. But it could add to the chorus of voices that have made moderate Republicans a bit jittery about supporting the legislation. On Tuesday, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the former chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said that he would vote “no.”

Ethan Rome, co-director at the advocacy group Health Care for America Now, said, “I don’t come from a school that thinks politicians are persuaded by Jimmy Kimmel. I am from a school that thinks they will be moved by his personal and powerful story, and that it speaks to and for the vast majority of Americans.”

There already is some precedent for comedians having an impact on healthcare debates — and perhaps even marking a turning point. In 2014, as the Obama White House was struggling with a faulty website and other bad headlines over the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, it got a boost after President Obama appeared in a Funny or Die video, Zach Galifianakis’ faux talk show “Between Two Ferns.” It helped spur sign ups to the insurance exchanges — a critical component to getting the healthcare law off the ground.

Martin Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center at USC and principal investigator for Hollywood, Health and Society, said that he thinks the Kimmel video will have an influence.

“Storytelling is an especially powerful way to get our attention and to communicate a message, particularly when listeners can empathize with the people and the situations that a story is about,” he said via e-mail. “That’s why the most influential moments from recent congressional town halls were personal testimony from people whose lives were dramatically changed for the better by Obamacare, and would be jeopardized by its repeal. It’s also why moments when people talked about their own opioid addiction were so moving and memorable during the presidential campaign.”

He added, “The only pushback to Jimmy Kimmel’s story that I’ve come across so far is to dispute the negative consequences of isolating people with pre-existing conditions in state-funded high risk pools. Even if that aspect of the repeal-and-replace plan were benign — and it’s not — in the context of a powerful narrative, it’s just policy gobbledygook.”

Now, as then, it is difficult to measure just what impact one moment can have on such a hard-fought issue, but it can certainly help steer the debate and how it is defined.

“Healthcare is not a political issue, it is a personal issue for people,” Rome said. “They don’t see it through a lens of partisan politics. They see it through the lens of how it affects their lives and the lives of their friends. I don’t think stars make or break political debates, but what is powerful about Jimmy Kimmel is his is a very challenging, but common story that was given uncommon attention because of who he is and what he does.”

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