Insurers become O-Care foot soldiers

Insurance companies are serving as foot soldiers for ObamaCare with a multimillion-dollar ad campaign intended to push customers into the insurance exchanges. 

Though the companies are reluctant to publicize their role in the unpopular law, health insurers are expected to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in 2014 alone on television, radio and online ads aimed at boosting enrollment.


The campaigns are ramping up around the country as ObamaCare’s enrollment period for 2014 enters its final month. 

The administration says about 4 million people have signed up for private plans so far, and insurances companies are working to sign up every possible customer before time runs out.

“They’re going to put a lot of their gunpowder behind this final run to the deadline,” said Scott Roskowski, chief development officer at TVB, a trade group for local commercial broadcasters.

The insurance industry stands to gain a huge influx of new customers under the healthcare law as millions of people take advantage of federal subsidies to buy insurance, in some cases obtaining coverage for the first time.

That has insurers competing to get in on the ground floor by signing up customers who could provide business for years to come.

“The insurers themselves have substantially increased their advertising budgets to attract more of the uninsured,” Roskowski said. 

The boost in advertising complements final efforts by White House allies to increase participation by March 31, the final cutoff for signing up and avoiding a fine for not having insurance.

The administration also has outside help from groups like Enroll America, which is redoubling its outreach with new volunteers and more money for advertising. 

Working alongside the administration, Enroll America officials are partnering with local officials to target minority groups that are the most likely to lack health insurance. 

Enroll America President Anne Filipic said her group plans to leave “no stone unturned” before next month’s deadline.

“Thanks to the data we’ve collected [over the last five months], we know what works,” she said. 

The enrollment drives could have a long-lasting impact on the success of the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) marketplaces.

It’s unlikely that the administration can meet its original goal of 7 million sign-ups by the end of March, even with the help of a serious ground game.

Regardless, officials and insurers remain focused on enrolling as many young and healthy patients as possible in order to keep prices down on the exchanges. 

Part of the challenge is making health coverage attractive to people who are often hesitant to spend money on insurance. 

That’s where the advertisements come in. 

Some consumers are likely to see brand-name insurance companies as more trustworthy than the Obama administration. 

Blue Cross and Blue Shield affiliates in several states launched integrated campaigns to both educate consumers and promote their health plans. 

In Idaho, Blue Cross partnered with the Idaho Library Association to get out the word. 

In Nebraska, it launched advertisements across media platforms citing the importance of signing up for coverage by March 31. 

These and other promotional efforts could provide a tailwind for federal health officials. 

The nonprofit Ad Council is mounting a public service announcement for
ObamaCare this month worth approximately $30 million in donated time and space from the media. Enroll America just increased its digital advertising budget from $5 million to $7 million for 2014.

And the local broadcaster group TVB projects that health insurers will spend a total of $500 million on local television commercials this year, though not all will relate to ObamaCare plans.

Many of the insurance companies altered their marketing strategies to prepare for ObamaCare’s arrival, experts said. 

Firms like Humana and Kaiser Permanente, which used to focus on group insurance, are now trying to sell their policies to consumers in specific states. 

Roskowski said that in total, health insurance companies transferred 10 percent of their ad spending to local markets between 2012 and 2013. 

“That shift is monumental,” he said. “It changes the game completely … This is most definitely related to the ACA.” 

Marketing consultant David Burke said the changes lay the groundwork for healthcare advertising to grow substantially over the next 10 years.

“The ACA is really a trigger mechanism for overall healthcare reform, and that’s going to lead to new opportunities from a marketing standpoint,” said Burke, president of Iowa-based Burke Media Marketing. 

“This is just the beginning of how it will play out.”  

Jonathan Easley contributed.