A Tough Sell

HHS stages multimillion-dollar PR campaign to promote Obamacare

Kathleen Sebelius / AP
April 22, 2013

The federal agency charged with implementing the Affordable Care Act announced a multimillion-dollar public relations contract last week in order to convince people to join the program and keep it from collapsing, critics claimed.

Enrollment in Obamacare’s health insurance exchanges is lagging, raising concerns about the viability of the exchanges, which are the law’s primary means of delivering health insurance. The bill’s congressional architects have warned the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) may be unable to establish a functional health insurance marketplace.

HHS announced on Friday it would pay public relations firm Weber Shandwick $8 million to promote enrollment in Obamacare’s exchanges.

Ben Domenech, a health care expert with the Heartland Institute, said problems with implementation of the law could "scare off" some health care consumers who are already confused by the government-led overhaul of the nation’s health care system.

"Obamacare's functional defects are becoming a liability, and the train wreck is getting closer, so the administration wants to get as many people dependent on it as fast as possible when it launches, whether the exchanges and other systems are ready for them or not," Domenech told the Washington Free Beacon.

The state of Maryland also hired Weber in January to promote its state-based exchange. That contract is worth nearly $6 million.

That state could prove to be a test case for national implementation of the law. Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley has eagerly implemented Obamacare, announcing the creation of a health care task force the day after the measure was signed into law.

However, Maryland has struggled with implementation. The state’s health agency announced this month it will delay health insurance exchanges for small businesses.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has cited Maryland as a state "showing leadership" by proactively pursuing setting up Obamacare exchanges. Hiccups in Maryland could be a troubling sign for the larger, national effort, critics say.

A spokesperson with the state’s Health Benefit Exchange said the rest of its Obamacare infrastructure is on schedule, including its exchange for individual consumers, which is still scheduled to be unveiled in October.

Last week’s HHS contract was part of a stepped up PR effort by the administration, which is expected to culminate in October when exchanges are supposed to be up and running. The law’s supporters have admitted HHS is unlikely to meet that deadline.

The agency inked a $20 million contract with PR firm Porter Novelli in May 2012 and another contract with Weber worth $3.1 million five months later.

An HHS official said in a statement emailed to the Washington Free Beacon the most recent contract would pay for an ad campaign that "will use a range of communications tactics, with an emphasis on paid media and digital outreach, to make the uninsured aware of the marketplace and the health insurance options available to them."

"The initial task order is for about $8 million with the option to increase our investment based on performance," the official said.

Like previous Obamacare PR contracts, the Weber deal drew fire from opponents of the law on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Tom Price (R., Ga.), a member of the congressional health care caucus, criticized the administration in a statement to the Free Beacon for "spending millions of hard-earned in taxpayer dollars on an advertising campaign to tell Americans what's 'good for them' in the flawed and harmful healthcare law."

"As Americans are harmed because of these disastrous policies, no public relations campaign will convince them otherwise," Price said.