Ads target majority unsure of Vt. health changes

April 21, 2013

Rutland Herald

By Kevin O’Connor
The state will spend more than $100 million to launch Vermont Health Connect, an insurance program that promises to “touch a quarter-million Vermonters in 2014.”

But first, its leaders will roll out a nearly $7 million advertising and awareness campaign to alert the majority of the public that so far is unaware of what’s coming.

The Vermont Health Connect benefits exchange is a linchpin of a new federal reform law and potential state single-payer system. The program — part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — will allow individuals, households and small businesses to compare and purchase authorized private insurance plans and determine eligibility and enroll in public services such as Medicaid and Dr. Dynasaur.

Almost everyone recognizes the informal term “Obamacare.” But a spring 2012 survey of 1,000 Vermonters found only 27 percent had “heard anything” about the resulting state exchange, spurring leaders to hold a series of public forums last fall to educate the remaining 73 percent.

A year later, a new Kaiser Family Foundation poll shows a majority of Americans — and two-thirds of those uninsured — still don’t understand how the program will affect them. Although the survey didn’t dissect findings by state, a recent call-in segment on Vermont Public Radio’s weekday “Vermont Edition” demonstrated a continuing lack of comprehension.

“What is a basic plan?” one listener asked.

“I’m wondering if I have to buy into this?” another inquired.

State leaders are returning to the road for another round of public forums — and are set to follow up with a nearly $7 million “education and outreach” effort featuring newspaper advertising, radio and television commercials and a social-media campaign.

“Unfortunately, health care reform can be very complicated,” says Mark Larson, commissioner of the state Agency of Human Services’ new Department of Vermont Health Access. “Frequently it takes hearing information a couple of different times before it sinks in and is retained.”

Vermont Health Connect is part of a larger state effort to ensure adequate health insurance for the third of all residents with no or not enough coverage, reduce medical costs for those struggling with skyrocketing premiums, and, ultimately, improve everyone’s well-being.

The state is likening the exchange — whose startup costs are funded largely by federal grants — to websites and toll-free numbers that let consumers find affordable airfares and accommodations. In this case, consumers will be able to plug into Vermont Health Connect by computer, phone or in person to see side-by-side, apples-to-apples comparisons and select coverage that fits their needs and budget.

The state will officially launch the site Oct. 1 to preview insurance plans for individuals and small businesses with 50 or fewer employees that will be available starting Jan. 1, 2014. (Small businesses with 50 to 100 employees will have to wait until 2016 to access the program, while people covered by Medicare or the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs aren’t affected.)

But first, leaders hope to educate the public.

“People’s questions tend to be one of two scenarios,” Larson says. “Either really general — ‘What is an exchange?’ — or very, very specific — ‘I have 35 staff members, 14 are part-time, two are right-handed.’”

A summer advertising campaign will aim to address the first query.

“We’re now developing its themes and message,” says Seán Sheehan, director of education and outreach. “Our work is cut out for us. Going into this campaign, a lot of Vermonters have yet to hear about us.”

The state has hired the same marketing consultant that helped launch its “Green Mountain Care” brand of government health services in 2007. That $1.6 million ad campaign paid off in public recognition: Nearly seven in 10 Vermonters went on to tell pollsters they’d seen the state’s “Healthy as a Horse” television commercial that featured a computer-animated steed collapsing in a comic pratfall.

(Other results were less impressive: Of the estimated 67,000 Vermonters without health insurance at the time, only 2,764 went on to enroll in state-subsidized coverage in the first six months of the effort.)

The state also will spend $2 million to pay for “navigators” — people trained to provide free in-person assistance — before setting up a $4 million call center and starting its site.

“We’re also developing materials — print and online — to help individuals, families and small businesses,” Sheehan adds, “and we’re partnering with more than 100 business associations, community groups and social service agencies to get the word out.”

Leaders face one other challenge: How to publicize the basics while federal and state leaders continue to finalize the fine print.

“We are pleased to be able to say, compared to a year ago, we can provide some pretty concrete answers to many questions,” Larson says.

Proposed prices, for example, range from $360 a month for the most basic coverage to more than $600 a month for the most comprehensive. Then again, the state has yet to review or approve any of the rates.

“But it does give people,” Larson says, “a context of what to expect.”



For more information:

Vermont Health Connect will hold the following public forums to explain basic benefits required of all plans in the new insurance program (such as checkups, emergency and mental health care, and prescriptions), what tax credits and other forms of financial aid will be available, and how people can access all of it. Each is set for 6:30 to 8 p.m. unless otherwise noted:

Enosburg Falls on June 4 at The Abbey

Grand Isle on May 7 at Grand Isle Elementary School

Lyndonville on July 23 at Lyndon Town School

Manchester on April 30 at Mark Skinner Library

Montpelier on May 21 (from noon to 2 p.m.) at Kellogg Hubbard Library

Moretown on July 9 at Town Hall

Putney on June 13 at the town firehouse

Randolph on June 18 (6 to 7:30 p.m.) at Kimball Public Library

Rutland on May 14 at Rutland Free Library

Springfield on April 24 at First Congregational Church

Waterbury on June 12 at Thatcher Brook Primary School