Marketing campaigns to promote the new health insurance exchanges hit a speed bump the size of a boulder last month.
The problem-plagued launch of healthcare.gov on Oct. 1 made it all but impossible for most people to sign up for insurance on the exchanges.
And despite assurances by the administration of President Barack Obama that all would be fixed by the end of November, criticism about the site has turned into broad complaints about the Affordable Care Act.
For organizations tasked with promoting the insurance exchanges, the website debacle has forced them to rethink and readjust.
They’re now faced with a double challenge. Not only must they encourage people to sign up for coverage, they also have to rebuild trust.
Cover Missouri and Get Covered Illinois, two campaigns focused on promoting the Affordable Care Act, have stayed active on social media and also promoted resources and informational meetings on their websites.
But both campaigns, which separately use St. Louis public relations and marketing firm FleishmanHillard, were forced to put their mass media efforts on hold.
Get Covered Illinois, Illinois’ $35 million campaign, placed full-page ads in Illinois daily newspapers on Oct. 1. But before placing additional ads, the campaign team had to rethink its strategy, said Kelly Sullivan, chief communications officer for the Illinois marketplace.
She said Get Covered Illinois plans to launch an educational campaign within the next couple of weeks that will focus on getting residents informed about their options under the Affordable Care Act.
If HealthCare.gov is completely fixed by the end of November, then the radio, TV, print and digital advertisements targeting Illinoisans to enroll will begin in December. If the site still isn’t running smoothly, Get Covered Illinois will continue its educational campaign.
“It’s a daily calibration to synch our message with the operational realities of the day,” Sullivan said.
On the Missouri side, private nonprofit organization Missouri Foundation for Health also postponed a mass media launch for its Cover Missouri campaign, including radio ads, Internet banners and YouTube pre-rolls (the short ads that appear before the video you wanted to see).
In the meantime, the foundation launched its Facebook ads last week, as well as a search engine optimization that helps users find the Cover Missouri website easier when they use sites such as Google or Bing.
Ryan Barker, vice president of health policy at the foundation, said he wants people to find the Cover Missouri website because Missourians need to be informed before they enroll.
“A lot of consumers don’t want to come and do this all in one day anyway,” he said. “We’re making the best of it and saying let’s spend this time getting consumers ready for enrollment.”
But changing the schedule can be tricky. Barker said he doesn’t want to target his audience during the holidays, because most Missourians likely will be distracted.
“We don’t necessarily want to be spending our limited resources during Thanksgiving and all the Black Friday ads,” he said.
Stepping In Without The State
With no support from the state, the Missouri Foundation for Health has taken the majority of responsibility for advocating health reform in Missouri. The foundation spent $1.8 million of its own budget to fund the state’s largest Affordable Care Act campaign and another $5 million on certified application counselors, people trained to help consumers use the insurance marketplace.
Other organizations and professionals have joined the movement, too, and the Cover Missouri Coalition has reached 300 members. Since August, the foundation and FleishmanHillard have distributed more than a million pieces of Cover Missouri materials to coalition members to hand out to the community.
Barker admits the campaign could use more money, but he is hopeful of reaching as many Missourians as possible.
“I think we’re doing the best we can,” he said. “I think we’re being pretty effective in educating; I think we’ll see in the next six months. It’s a rough start. The website issues are not helping us any.”
Plus, the federal government altered other timelines, too. Originally, consumers had to be enrolled for insurance by Feb. 15 next year to avoid a fine, but that was extended to March 31 — the end of the enrollment period.
Barker said the Cover Missouri campaign was rescheduled to accommodate the Feb. 15 deadline and then rescheduled again once the deadline was pushed back.
And the federal government was supposed to begin a round of advertisements for the marketplace in October but has yet to launch them. Barker wanted to avoid overlapping the campaigns, but there may be no way around it now. He said he’s not concerned, though, because the federal advertisements will mostly target St. Louis and Kansas City, while the Cover Missouri campaign is more spread out and targets rural areas.
Buying ‘A Little More Patience’?
In Illinois, Sullivan said the campaign focuses on what it can control. The partnership with the federal site is problematic, but GetCoveredIllinois.gov can still provide resources to residents.
“It’s more about, are we making progress continuously? Because we always saw this as a multiple-year endeavor,” she said.
Barker and Sullivan each said they have not changed the strategy of their campaigns to defend healthcare.gov’s image. Residents in both states, they said, have been receptive to accepting information and education while waiting to enroll.
“I don’t know how long this good will is going to last,” Barker said. “That’s the big question, and things are getting better on a daily basis.”
As of Tuesday, federal officials announced the healthcare.gov application process could handle up to 17,000 users at a time with few issues.
Tim Burt, an advertising expert in St. Louis, said consumers’ concerns with the troubled online exchanges shouldn’t be ignored in the marketing efforts. Both Illinois and Missouri campaigns, he said, should address those issues and keep consumers updated on fixes.
“People are a lot more likely to give you a pass,” he said. “You’re gonna buy a little more patience with them.”