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Exchanges Increasing Outreach Ahead of Scheduled Opening

Oregon, federal government reaching out to younger uninsured

• September 6, 2013 5:00 am

Oregon’s health insurance exchange is sponsoring the main stage at Portland’s indie music festival this week as state exchanges ramp up their outreach and marketing efforts ahead of the scheduled opening of the state and federal exchanges on Oct. 1.

Oregon is also reaching out to local high schools in the hope that their marching bands will enter a video contest promoting the exchange, and exchange officials are in talks with distributors to sell branded coffee cup holders.

Obamacare requires all states to have a health insurance exchange where individuals can compare and buy private health insurance plans. Thirty-four states refused to set up their own exchanges, forcing the federal government to step in, while 16 states and the District of Columbia set up their own exchanges.

Multiple exchange officials said they are increasing their outreach efforts in the final weeks before the exchanges are set to open.

"People probably will be seeing more ads than they are now," said Ariane Holm, a spokeswoman for Cover Oregon, that state’s exchange.

The District of Columbia is also increasing its education and outreach efforts during September. After Oct. 1, the District will shift to an enrollment campaign.

"The intensity will definitely ramp up," said Richard Sorian, director of communications for D.C.’s exchange. D.C. officials are trying to reach the 7 percent of D.C.’s population that is uninsured "where they shop, where they play, and where they pray."

Sponsoring the main stage at Music Fest NW is only one creative and unorthodox way Cover Oregon is marketing itself.

For example, Oregon’s exchange has partnered with local musicians to write and record songs promoting the exchange under the slogan "Long Live Oregonians." Its TV spots led the Washington Post to declare, "Oregon just launched the world’s most twee Obamacare marketplace."

These outreach efforts are tailored to reach the individuals the exchange needs to sign up for the insurance plans to be economically viable.

"A lot of our marketing is sort of engaging the young and healthy around the local artist community," Holm said. Exchange outreach workers will be at Portland’s music festival handing out information on the exchange and taking down attendees’ information.

The possible high school band video contest—where the bands will record their own covers of the songs featured in the TV ads—will target some rising college students who might need to buy health insurance, although the contest is primarily trying to reach moms, Holm said.

Oregon has to enroll 217,000 people in the exchange for it to be "self-sustaining," Holm said.

Many of these enrollees will have to be young people. Of the 7 million people across the nation who will likely sign up for health insurance through the exchanges, about 2.7 million of them will have to be young adults, the administration has said.

The exchanges need young people to sign up for two reasons, said David Haislmaier, a health policy expert at the Heritage Foundation. A greater proportion of young people are uninsured, and the exchanges need younger people, who tend to be healthier, to subsidize insurance for older people, who tend to need more health care.

The federal government is also working to reach out to younger people as the exchanges set to open.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which is implementing much of the health care law, has partnered with the youth advocacy group Young Invincibles for a video contest advocating the law. The video contest is the top item on HHS’s website. HHS also promoted the law this July at a Washington Nationals baseball game.

Additionally, the Obama administration is readying a new $12 million TV advertisement campaign promoting the law in Republican-controlled states.

Beyond promotion of the law, HHS is increasing the number of people working on the ground to sign people up for insurance. The department announced on Aug. 15 that it was giving out $67 million in "Navigator" grants to groups who will help people enroll in insurance plans through the exchanges.

While the exchanges need young people to sign up, the structure of the exchanges actually works against young people signing up, experts say.

The exchanges restrict the difference between what insurance companies can charge younger people and older people, Haislmaier said. This regulation raises the cost of insurance for young people, although it lowers it for the more elderly.

"Obamacare thumbs its nose at centuries of actuarial wisdom and now is struggling to try and force the system to work anyway," said Merrill Matthews, a health care policy expert at the Institute for Policy Innovation.

The minimum coverage requirements of all plans on the exchanges could further discourage young people from buying health insurance by forcing younger people to buy more coverage than they want, Matthews said. Insurance companies’ past experiments with such low-coverage, lost cost plans have proven them to be very popular, Matthews said.

A recent study by the National Center for Public Policy Research cast doubt on the ability of the exchanges to attract younger enrollees. The report said that millions would have over a $1,000 incentive in 2014 to avoid the exchanges and pay a financial penalty instead.