Insurers now outspending Kochs’ group on Obamacare ads

A Tea Party member reaches for a pamphlet titled "The Impact of Obamacare", at a "Food for Free Minds Tea Party Rally" in Littleton, New Hampshire in this October 27, 2012 file photo. The Obama administration said on July 2, 2013 it would not require employers to provide health insurance for their workers until 2015, delaying a key provision of President Barack Obama's healthcare reform law by a year, to beyond the next election. REUTERS/Jessica Rinald
REUTERS/Jessica Rinald

Much has been made about Americans for Prosperity's prodigious spending on an ad campaign opposed to the new health-care law.

But another player, which is casting the program in a different light, is giving the conservative advocacy group a run for its money: the health insurance industry.

Companies such as Cigna and Kaiser Permanente poured about $40 million into television ads specifically related to Obamacare between Dec. 1 and Feb. 8, according to ad tracking firm Kantar Media. That is far more than AFP, which as of last week had dropped about $27 million on ads since August attacking politicians who supported the program.

The insurer spending was widely expected. The industry has a lot to lose if people - particularly young and healthy ones, who don't cost a lot to insure - do not sign up for health insurance in droves this year.

But individual insurance companies also have a lot to gain, as they make an unprecedented pitch directly to consumers in hopes of getting the biggest share of the newly covered.

In a blog post behind the paywall over at the Cook Political Report, Kantar vice president Elizabeth Wilner points out that this isn't an apples-to-apples comparison. The AFP campaign is running during different programming and is concentrated in battleground states. The ads bash the health law as a "disaster" in an effort to unseat Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections.

The insurer ads, meanwhile, are airing more broadly and take a neutral tone toward the Affordable Care Act. They simply refer to it in trying to steer people toward their health plans, noting the "confusing" atmosphere surrounding the new online insurance marketplaces and highlighting the March 31 deadline to get covered or face a fine.

Still, "the broader point remains that unlike most political advertising, the latest [AFP] anti-Obamacare campaign isn't happening in a total vacuum," Wilner wrote.

"What will be interesting to see is whether insurers change their ad messaging or strategies [in the fall], when their ads seeking sign-ups will be competing with, most likely, some of the most intense and vitriolic political advertising against the ACA in its short but eventful life," she added.

Wilner noted that insurer ad spending related to the health-care law peaked the first week of December, when the Obama administration came through on its promise to fix its online marketplace, HealthCare.gov. The industry spent more than $34 million on ads that week, with some specifically referring to the health law, and others more general.

The firm expects that insurers will have spent a few hundred million dollars over the course of the open enrollment period, which started in October and ends March 31, but that it won't boost public opinion of the law.

"The advertising may help the administration close in on their enrollment targets -- it just won't help them keep the Senate or net seats in the House," Wilner wrote.

Sandhya Somashekhar is the social change reporter for the Washington Post.
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