Fred ' Ethel, drug-plan shills

Free gym memberships, discounts for acupuncture therapy and vision-care reimbursements are among the offers health-insurance companies are touting in their multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns for Medicare prescription-drug plans.

Free gym memberships, discounts for acupuncture therapy and vision-care reimbursements are among the offers health-insurance companies are touting in their multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns for Medicare prescription-drug plans.

Medicare beneficiaries can “save money with Prescription Pathway,” get the “Aetna answer,” chat with Humana’s “let’s talk” campaign representatives or get “coverage you can count on” from UnitedHealth Group, the insurer teamed with AARP.

Patrick G. Ryan
Insurers are spending millions of dollars promoting their Medicare drug plans.

Marketing and operations for the Medicare prescription-drug benefit is big business. Aetna and PacifiCare Health Systems are spending $50 million each, while CIGNA is doling out $40 million. UnitedHealth Group’s budget is $75 million. Humana has already spent $80 million on marketing.

Companies are probably spending so much on marketing for the Medicare prescription-drug benefit because “the product is so complex,” said Paul Ginsburg, president of the Center for Studying Health System Change.

With upwards of 50 choices in many areas across the country, many insurers are pitching how simple their plans are.

Republicans and the insurance industry have a lot riding on easing seniors’ concerns. If confusion envelops the drug benefit, Republicans — who rammed the bill through Congress in 2003 — will suffer at the polls in 2006.

Insurance companies, meanwhile, could lose millions if confused seniors opt not to participate in the drug program. Most of the industry ads try to entice seniors of all races, featuring people of Asian, African, European and Hispanic descent.

Congressional Democrats, most of whom voted against the bill two years ago and are in the politically awkward position of explaining it to their constituents, say that lobbyists for the insurance and pharmaceutical industries wrote the GOP drug plan.

Political implications and the bottom line give companies and politicians a special interest in the success or failure of the Medicare drug plan. Hence, using elaborate marketing techniques could convince an otherwise skeptical senior to sign up for drug coverage.

Humana, Wal-Mart’s partner, launched its “Let’s Talk” tour with a 30-foot RV to visit 300 cities nationwide, said Humana Media Relations Manager Mary Sellers.

PacifiCare joined with the company Deutsch and Robert Legato — who won an Oscar for his visual effects in the blockbuster movie “Titanic” — to re-create part of an “I Love Lucy” episode with Fred and Ethel Mertz to market its Medicare Rx plan.

“A pop-cultural reference makes a lot of sense,” said Eric Hirshberg, Deutsch co-president and chief creative officer, in an informational video about the making of the commercial. “It is very underutilized for this target. If Britney Spears makes sense for Pepsi, why not Fred and Ethel Mertz for PacifiCare?”

Actor Hal Linden, star of the 1970s TV series “Barney Miller,” was hired by CIGNA to star in television advertisements promoting the company’s Cignature Rx Medicare prescription-drug plans.

UnitedHealth Group is airing commercials that show senior citizens gazing over their “Part D Show Me” guide, UnitedHealth Group spokeswoman Joyce Larkin said, adding that the firm has already distributed more than 10 million copies of the booklet.

Along with putting out television advertisements, companies have been sending out pamphlets and booklets plugging the benefits of their plans. Certain plans are working with pharmacy chains to promote their plans in stores. Rite Aid has united with Aetna, Coventry and UnitedHealth Group for educational events and has a co-marketing contract with Humana and Cigna.

Aetna has attempted to tackle the confusion among seniors head on.

“Medicare, Medigap, Medi-this, Medi-that … which plan is right for me?” says an Aetna flier.

Aetna has eight television ads and a direct-mail campaign. Its ads feature smiling seniors of different backgrounds. The advertisements tell seniors that they have 27,000 employees, plans without the doughnut hole (a coverage gap in drug spending between $2,250 to $5,100), “simple” plans with low co-pays, “$0 co-pays for preventive care,” fitness benefits that include free gym memberships, and mail-order prescriptions. Aetna also provides reimbursements for vision and hearing needs and gives discounts on visits to acupuncturists, chiropractors and massage therapists.

Trust is another theme that runs through promotions run by well-known companies.

UnitedHealth Group Insurance Co. has pamphlets that champion its AARP endorsement, stating it is “an organization you can trust.”

UnitedHealth is not alone.

“A name you can trust. Medi-CareFirst Rx is from the people at CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield. With more than 70 years of experience, we’re not new to healthcare … or to people with Medicare,” says an advertisement from Blue Cross Blue Shield Association (BCBSA) that shows a doctor smiling with his stethoscope.

“We do think that having a name that people recognize always helps,” said Jane Galvin, BCBSA director of regulatory affairs.