Feds dragging feet on insurance exchange education


The barrage of questions for federal officials regarding health insurance exchanges continues, piggybacking on a powerful Senator's comments that the online marketplaces were headed for a "train wreck" if they don't adequately promote and educate the public.

As I reported in a previous column, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) told U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius that a "huge train wreck is coming down" unless the agency informs consumers about the online marketplaces.

Sebelius admitted that raising awareness about exchanges is a "challenge" because "too few people know what is happening," she said in the aftermath of Baucus's remark. "That is what we are trying to get out ahead of and address."

And indeed, HHS just signed a new $8 million contract with PR firm Weber Shandwick to help promote the health insurance exchanges using various communications tactics, with an emphasis on paid media and digital outreach.

Meanwhile, Gary Cohen, director of the HHS Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, has faced heated questions from lawmakers on whether consumers' health costs will increase with exchanges. Although he wouldn't directly respond during a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee hearing, Cohen advised consumers to shop for insurance on the marketplaces to find affordable options.

He also highlighted tasks, including creating the federal data hub, that HHS has already completed, and he promoted a new call center that will begin operating in June to help answer any consumer questions.

All of that progress should come as welcome news for insurers. But they still shouldn't let their collective guard down and assume that the federal government will do all the promotional work for them. Even with several PR contracts already in place to help HHS raise exchange awareness, it's unlikely the promotional activities will be as far reaching as necessary to inform the tens of millions of people who can shop online next year for health insurance.

That's why there's no better company, agency or official to promote the exchanges and educate the public than insurers themselves – because they have the most to gain. When you're in the fight to win it, and by winning it I mean earn millions of extra dollars, then you take the most calculated steps to ensure the desired outcome.

It's time for insurers to use their vast networks, information centers and networking capabilities to guarantee that as many people as possible know about exchanges. They have the skills and financial resources to launch widespread campaigns and it's time they took charge of their own future. - Dina (@HealthPayer)