Insurance exchanges get the PR treatment

The federal government has signed on with an ad agency for a $3 million campaign to promote insurance exchanges.

Come January 2014, millions of people will be buying health coverage on insurance exchanges.

So long as confusion doesn’t scare them off.

Deborah Chollet, a health care economist with the research firm Mathematica, says for most people, health exchanges are a big black box. They are "absolutely clueless about what the exchange is," she says. "What they have heard is there is something frightening about it."

That’s precisely why the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, has hired a public relations firm for $3 million to promote health insurance exchanges.

Exchanges may sound wonky, even super wonky, but they aren’t as complicated as they seem. In fact, they’re a lot like the websites Travelocity and Expedia, where you go online and compare prices for flights, hotel rooms and other travel services. With insurance exchanges, people can go online and compare health insurance plans by prices, levels of coverage and other factors. It’s as easy as planning a trip.

Or that’s the simple message the government is trying to get out.

Jeff Loeb, an advertising executive with Brainchild in San Francisco, knows something about getting people to do things they may be reluctant to do. His firm was behind an energy-saving campaign in California, that, in his words: convinced people to “sit inside and sweat.”

He says getting people to sign up for the exchanges is doable. It starts with building a brand. “If I give this the right brand name, it moves the needle for me, because suddenly I get the fact that this is the federal government giving me more choice about my choice of health insurance…and there’s tons of evidence that people love choices.”

Chollet says convincing people there is nothing intimidating about shopping for health insurance on the exchanges,  is key to the success of the health reform law. In order to make the exchanges work and keep prices low, she says you have to attract a large pool of people.

“If not enough people sign up for insurance through the exchanges, the cost of insurance in the exchange will be higher than the marketplace. And the exchange can’t survive.”

Chollet points to the successful example of Massachusetts. Its exchange, which has been operating since the state passed insurance reform several years ago, is called the Connector.

She said state officials skipped the  wonky explaining and appealed straight to residents love for its baseball team. They brought in the Red Sox, who advertised the Connector during its games. “It made a huge difference in enrollment in Massachusetts,” Chollet said.

Not to mention the Sox won the series that year.

About the author

Dan Gorenstein is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Health Desk. You can follow him on Twitter @dmgorenstein.

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