By Sam Baker - 04/19/13 04:23 PM EDT
The PR firm will use "a range of communications tactics, with an emphasis on paid media and digital outreach" to raise awareness of the exchanges, the official said.
The official said the contract is initially worth roughly $8 million, with an option to spend more based on performance.
This contract is just one part of a broader HHS outreach campaign, the official noted. The administration has laid out a plan to ramp up its outreach efforts as full implementation grows closer, and outside allies of the healthcare law are also organizing similar efforts.
The administration has previously taken fire from Republicans for spending money on PR contracts to promote the law — including a $3.1 million contract with Weber Shandwick last year and a separate $20 million agreement with another firm.
But raising awareness of the law's new programs will be key to making them work.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said this week that he's afraid the implementation will be a "huge train wreck" because the public is not informed about the law. He pressed HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius for details about the PR campaign to build awareness and coax people to enroll in the exchanges.
HHS is operating all or part of the exchanges in 33 states; the remaining 17 states are building their own marketplaces.
Exchanges were envisioned as one-stop shops where people who don't get health insurance from an employer can buy private coverage. Plans have to meet certain criteria to sell through an exchange, and most consumers who use the marketplaces will get a subsidy to help cover the cost of their premiums.
— This post was updated at 5:50 p.m.