Campaign trumpets Affordable Care Act's options

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If mothers across America start nagging their sons to buy health insurance this summer, that's not a coincidence -- that's by design.

With 9 in 10 people still unaware that the nation's new health care exchanges will be open for business Oct. 1, health industry stakeholders are preparing for a massive outreach and awareness campaign to spread the word to uninsured populations -- and their mothers -- about the availability of individual health care policies and the tax subsidies that will help pay for them.

Research has shown that this is a personal issue for families. "Individuals want to hear from trusted voices," said Anne Filipic, president of Enroll America, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group created by health insurers, hospitals, pharmaceutical firms and other health-related organizations to feed new customers into the system.

The most trusted voice? Mom's, particularly among 20- and 30-something uninsured men.

So while much of the outreach will be tailored toward the uninsured themselves, messengers ought to also be aware of "how [we] are talking to their moms," and then convincing those moms to talk to their kids, Ms. Filipic said.

But outreach costs money, and with Congress unlikely to steer any additional loose change toward the marketing of President Barack Obama's still-controversial health care overhaul -- House Republicans now want to steer some of "Obamacare's" marketing money toward a federal health plan for uninsured, high-risk patients with pre-existing conditions -- getting the word out presents a substantial challenge.

For example, the $2.1 million that Pennsylvania community groups will get from the federal government to help the uninsured sign up for coverage isn't nearly enough, according to health advocates.

In all, the Obama administration announced last week that it will award $54 million in "navigator grants" to 33 states, to help people research and sign up for insurance policies in the exchanges.

Pennsylvania has more than 1.2 million under-65 residents who are without health insurance.

"Two million dollars is low, compared to other states," said Laval Miller-Wilson, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Pennsylvania Health Law Project. But, right now, "There is a limited pool of dollars [that] has to be shared with lots of other states."

Because Pennsylvania has forfeited the right, at least for now, to operate its own online health insurance exchange, opting instead to let the federal government run the exchange, it is participating in a round of grants being disbursed only to states that opt out of in-house exchanges. States running their own exchanges will see outreach money from a separate pot.

Health care advocacy groups, county health agencies, hospitals and other organizations are able to apply for the grants. Applications are due June 7.

The navigator grants are but one piece of the outreach puzzle. Insurers are expected to heavily advertise their individual health policies; advocacy groups will do their share; the federal government is planning its own marketing blast; and states themselves will get in on the act to varying degrees, depending on whether they are operating the exchanges in-house.

Experts agree the multipronged outreach is needed. Three years after Mr. Obama's signature health care overhaul became law, majorities of the uninsured who are polled still don't know much about the new exchanges, or whether they might be eligible for subsidized individual health insurance plans via the exchanges. In other states, they might be eligible for expanded Medicaid coverage.

Gov. Tom Corbett, so far, has declined to accept federal money to expand Pennsylvania's Medicaid eligibility, despite several studies suggesting that accepting the cash would be a boon for Pennsylvania. Even without expanded Medicaid coverage, many of the state's uninsured could be eligible for insurance.

"There is a huge information gap," said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a national organization for health care consumers. That gap is "not totally surprising," he said.

When President George W. Bush and Congress created a new prescription drug benefit plan for Medicare, a majority of seniors weren't aware of the new benefit prior to it taking effect.

That was in 2006. "Now, virtually everybody knows about it," Mr. Pollack said.

The target population during that outreach campaign was more compact and easier to reach. This time around, "navigators" and others charged with spreading the word will be working with the poor, with rural and minority populations, and with foreign-born populations who don't speak English as a first language, among others.

Their participation in the exchanges -- particularly the young and the healthy -- is vital to the viability of the Affordable Care Act. Without more federal grant funding, other than what's already been set aside, Mr. Pollack said the states and the private sector, particularly insurers, will have to shoulder more of the load.

Highmark Inc.'s outreach "will accelerate as we approach the Oct. 1, 2013, and Jan. 1, 2014, milestones," said Tony Ryzinski, the Pittsburgh insurer's vice president of marketing health services.

"Educating the community about health care reform is a big undertaking. Many hands will need to work simultaneously, and we are doing our part ... Highmark is planning a multi-faceted marketing effort for the second half of the year to ready consumers" through advertising, "grassroots" events and through the Highmark Direct retail stores.

Other insurers are getting a head start. Last week, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois launched its "Be Covered Illinois" campaign, meant to target the state's uninsured population. The campaign is being funded by the insurer, and carried out by various community and civic groups.

In Pennsylvania, on the state level, "At this point, we have no marketing dollars for the [Federally Facilitated Exchange] -- so no, we don't have any plans to do advertising this summer," said state Insurance Department spokeswoman Rosanne Placey.

The state does have a new health website -- -- which in the future could be used as a platform to explain and promote the exchange, she said.

According to a survey by Princeton Survey Research Association International, about 10 percent of Americans surveyed said they are "very knowledgeable" about the Affordable Care Act, and the same percentage said they were aware that the new health insurance exchanges come online in just over five months.

Meanwhile, according to Families USA, nearly 26 million Americans could be eligible next year for subsidies -- essentially, discounts -- on individual or family health insurance plans purchased via the new exchanges. Most, the organization say, are unaware of their eligibility.

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Bill Toland: or 412-263-2625.


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