Colorado’s health care exchange has spent nearly $8 million marketing itself to residents, passing out more than 150,000 exchange-branded packets of sunscreen and lip balm worth $46,000, and driving to the four corners of the state in a custom-wrapped RV.
Connect for Health Colorado conducted surveys to measure the effectiveness of its marketing. It found that the share of people who had heard of the exchange increased from 19 percent in April to 60 percent in December.
But the survey also showed apparent setbacks in key areas. The share of those who said they believe the exchange is for them dropped 19 percentage points, and those who thought it was for small business dropped 20 points. Those who oppose creation of a health insurance marketplace increased 6 points.
Support for the exchange remained steady at 47 percent.
Just over 100,000 Coloradans had signed up for private health insurance through the exchange as of March 17. Open enrollment ends March 31. The exchange in early 2013 projected enrollment ranging from 73,000 to 203,000 by the end of March.
Sign-ups started slowly in Colorado, in part because of widely publicized problems with the federally run exchange website, but have picked up momentum considerably in the past few months.
State Sen. Kevin Lundberg, a Berthoud Republican who serves on the Legislative Health Benefit Exchange Implementation Review Committee, questioned the effectiveness and cost of the marketing campaign.
“I’m troubled whenever government has to sell itself and sell programs at taxpayers’ expenses,” said Lundberg, who opposed the Affordable Care Act. “I believe the government should have a different way to communicate than just spending money on media.”
While the exchange is a quasi-public nonprofit created by the legislature and not a state agency, the marketing money is currently coming from a federal grant funded with tax dollars.
The exchange needs a large marketing budget to get the word out and drive people to the website, said state Rep. Beth McCann, D-Denver, who chairs the exchange-implementation review committee. But she said she is concerned that maybe the word isn’t getting out in the right way.
“It’s something we want to take a look at,” she said. “I haven’t seen survey results. If you find the marketing strategy is not successful, you make adjustments, and that’s something we might want to discuss at our next meeting.”
Exchange spokeswoman Myung Oak Kim said the marketing clearly is effective because Colorado ranks as one of the states with the highest enrollment in private plans from state-based exchanges.
“Recognition tripled of people who knew who we are, and a vast majority knew what we did,” she said. “Our job was not just to build a new shopping website and customer-support network to help Coloradans purchase health insurance and access new tax credits. We also needed to educate the entire state in a short time period about the new marketplace, how Coloradans can benefit and why they should shop with us.”
Kim said the 20 percent drop in people who thought the exchange was for them was due to people who have insurance from their employer realizing they have no need for the exchange.
Opposition to the marketplace, she said, increased because of media coverage of the technical problems that plagued the federally run exchange – of which Colorado is not a part – during the program’s rollout last fall.
The 20 percent drop in those who believe the exchange will help small business cover their workers is a concern, Kevin Raines, a principal at Corona Insights, which conducted the exchange’s surveys, wrote in an e-mail.
“That leaves the one mystery – the huge decline in people who say that Connect for Health is designed to meet the needs of small business,” he wrote. “Again, 6 to 7 percentage points of that decline may just be the rise in general opposition, but why did it fall so much further? I really don’t have a good theory on that yet.”
Raines theorized that small business may have gotten lost in the discussion or people may have seen stories about cost increases for small business.
“I think this is worth monitoring more, because it’s important,” he wrote.
Despite the mixed results, Kim said the $8 million in marketing, public relations and outreach was effective. Exchange officials will decide whether and how to spend another $7 million after open enrollment ends.
During an interview last month, she could not say exactly what the exchange will buy with those tax dollars. “We’re still working on that plan,” she said.
Kim later sent a statement saying that the exchange will focus on customer sign-up and retention. Marketing also will focus on getting people eligible for premium tax credits, young people, small business, areas with more uninsured people and minority groups.
This story was produced in partnership with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.