Some of the bad press for Obamacare is coming from the health insurers who stand to make money from it: They are airing TV ads that talk about 「scary」 and 「confusing」 changes to health insurance, underscoring the problems in online enrollment.
The ads are being broadcast by health insurers looking to sign up new customers, whether through the exchanges or directly, without the price comparisons and premium subsidies offered through the exchanges.
「When health care’s future seems so uncertain, it’s nice to know there’s a company you can depend on for quality coverage at a price you can afford,」 says an ad for Total Health Care, a Michigan insurer offering a plan through the exchange. In Nebraska, Blue Cross Blue Shield promises, 「We’ve got your back.」 In Vermont, Blue Cross Blue Shield calls change 「scary, especially when it involves something as important as health care.」
In an ad for Sanford Health Plan, which offers plans on exchanges in Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota, a couple debates what to do about their coverage.
「Is your office even keeping its health plan?」 asks the husband.
「I don’t know, what about that marketplace?」 says the wife.
「I’m not even sure how it works,」 he says. 「This is complicated.」
「This is painful,」 she says.
Some of the ads currently on the air began running over the summer. But many were timed to the start of online enrollment Oct. 1. Since online signup has belly-flopped, 「a lot of the ads playing on people’s uncertainties or concerns look absolutely prescient,」 says Elizabeth Wilner, a vice president of Kantar Media CMAG, which tracks the health insurer ads.
Then again, the problems with the HealthCare.gov website weren’t hard to predict, says Farzan Bharucha of health care consultants Kurt Salmon, because the site has to accommodate millions of consumers and coordinate information from multiple databases. 「There’s very few people I know who didn’t think it was going to be a hot mess.」
The ads that are being aired the most frequently — 1,000 times or more since June — all mention the health care overhaul, according to Kantar.
「It’s millions and millions and millions of dollars in more advertising that doesn’t necessarily help (Obamacare) as far as public opinion is concerned,」 Wilner says.
Political groups spent nearly half a billion dollars over three years arguing over the Affordable Care Act: $385 million in spending on ads against the law, $78 million for it, according to Kantar. That spending is dwarfed by the annual advertising budget of the health insurance industry itself: $600 million last year, according to TVB, a television advertising trade group.
Lindsay Resnick, chief marketing officer of KBM Group, a health care marketing consultant that includes Blue Cross Blue Shield among its clients, says health insurers aren’t trying to set off alarms. 「My sense is (the ad language) is more 『confusing and intimidating,』 vs. trying to scare people,」 he says. Insurers 「want to put themselves in the position of, let us be your trusted adviser.」
Insurers also want buyers to skip the exchange and come straight to them, so they won’t be tempted by the other plans offered on the exchange, Resnick says.
In Massachusetts, which has had a health insurance exchange since 2006, an ad for Tufts Health plan isn’t encouraging comparison shopping. 「Do you want to hear about the chemical composition of the sun? Or simply feel it on your face?」 asks the ad. 「Every day we have a choice: to see the complicated in everything, or see the simple . . . Maybe health care plans can’t be simple. But they sure can be simpler.」
Tufts spokeswoman Sonya Hagopian says the ad is aimed at consumers who may be switching their employer-based plans during open enrollment season. 「These ads are simply meant to bring more awareness to consumers about Tufts Health Plan. It’s not meant to discourage anybody to shop on the exchange,」 she says.
Sanford Health Plan President Ruth Krystolpolski says its ads, which started running the day before online enrollment started, aren’t designed to discourage use of the exchange, but simply reflect what the company is hearing from customers. 「They would say, 『Boy this is really confusing, I don’t know what I need to do when.』 The entire Affordable Care Act was very confusing,」 she said. 「What we wanted to do was to let individuals and (small businesses) know that we have information available to try to make it simple.」
Consumer advertising is relatively new ground for health insurers: Many of the largest aren’t offering plans through the health insurance exchange until they see how it works out, and many have little experience wooing individual policy buyers because they do business largely with employers, Bharucha says. 「They have not done a lot of direct-to-consumer at all. … Now they realize that they don’t really have a choice.