How states are spreading the word on health-care exchanges

October 1, 2013
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn looks on as U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius speaks at a news conference in Chicago (AP Photo/Chicago Sun-Times, Al Podgorski, File)
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn looks on as U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius speaks at a news conference in Chicago. (Al Podgorski/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)

State health-care exchanges open for business Tuesday, and millions of Americans will be eligible to sign up for coverage. But how many Americans will know where to go to access the marketplaces, or how to sign up?

In most states, the federal government has set up the exchanges. But in the 17 states that have set up their own exchanges, advertising campaigns aimed at educating the public and soliciting applications have been underway for months.

Most of the state-run exchanges are branding themselves as conduits for connecting residents with health-care providers. “Health,” “connect” and “link” are some of the most common words the exchanges use in their marketing campaigns, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Almost every Web site includes an option to subscribe for e-mail updates, and many include calculators that preview the amount a family would pay under various health-care plans.

A few states have experienced the same glitches that plague the federal government’s exchange Web site; last week, the Obama administration said it would have to delay the launch of its Spanish-language Web site for several weeks. Only five states — California, Connecticut, Maryland, Minnesota and Nevada — have deployed their full Spanish-language sites, Kaiser found. Nevada also said last week that it would delay launching its Spanish site, perhaps until mid-November.

The federal government has awarded a total of $92.2 million for advertising aimed at education and outreach, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Much of that money will flow through Weber Shandwick, a New York-based public relations outfit, while an ad agency called Elevation will handle Hispanic media outreach.

The federal ad campaign has focused on specific groups like young adults and those with pre-existing conditions.

At the state level, ad campaigns began as early as May, when Connect for Health Colorado deployed television and radio campaigns, along with billboards and advertisements on Denver city buses. Beyond television, other states are reaching out to sports teams; Maryland’s health exchange marketplace is partnering with the Baltimore Ravens, after market research showed more than three quarters of Free Staters had tuned into an NFL game last season. (Of course, last season the Ravens won the Super Bowl.)

Samantha Shepherd, an outreach and enrollment strategist at Cover Oregon, said her state was soliciting local musicians to come up with catchy tunes promoting the exchange and its Long Live Oregonians tagline. Cover Oregon is also advertising on Pandora, the mobile music app, and on iTunes.

But opponents of the Affordable Care Act are running their own advertising in hopes of keeping younger, healthier Americans — those whose premiums will help pay for the more vulnerable — off the exchanges. Generation Opportunity, a group funded by the billionaires Charles and David Koch, is running its own round of advertising featuring the much-talked about “creepy” Uncle Sam.

The buzz over the government shutdown may be gobbling up some of the oxygen the Obama administration hoped would go toward the launch of the marketplaces Tuesday. Data from Google show the number of visitors searching for terms like “ObamaCare” and “health care” has decreased in recent days, while the number of searches for “shutdown” are on the rise.

On Sunday, “government shutdown” was the fourth-most popular search term, behind the AMC show “Breaking Bad,” the Denver Broncos and Lane Kiffin, the University of Southern California coach who was fired after his Trojans got off to a weak start.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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Reid Wilson | September 30, 2013