As if it weren't enough that the federal government's spending $1 billion in tax money – more than all but two American advertisers –to promote Obamacare exchanges, now insurance companies are getting into the act, Advertising Age reported October 1.
If successful, these efforts will result in driving consumer traffic to exchange websites that aren't ready for prime time yet.
Competing for share
While the government campaign's objective was category expansion – i.e., getting consumers, particularly healthy 20somethings whose premiums would subsidize older, sicker and richer Americans' coverage – to buy the insurance in general, the insurance companies' campaigns are aimed at winning a bigger share of the new policies for their brands.
...health-insurance companies are hoping to take advantage of the law's complexity to lure new members to their plans.
"We need to not only protect our turf, but we've got to acquire our fair share of the new market that's up for grabs, because a segment of consumers are going to be looking to different sources for information," said WellPoint Chief Marketing Officer Patrick Blair.
"You're really going to see people spend more [on marketing] throughout this period," said Lindsay Resnick, chief marketing officer at KMB Group, a marketing firm that's working with several health-plan providers, including six Blue Cross Blue Shield clients, on campaigns involving digital and TV.
Although direct-response campaigns will include print, television radio, search and digital display components, most of the non-government advertising money is going into social media. The reason, Cigna VP-customer acquisitions Lisa Lough explained, is, "Social media is, of course, an important vehicle for reaching younger demographics."
Digital dead ends
But the better these campaigns work in the marketplace, the more consumers they'll succeed in driving to digital dead ends. That's because the state and federal Obamacare exchange websites just aren't in working order.
- Over at the mother ship, the HHS website, healthcare.gov, first displayed error messages, then told visitors that "the site is down for the moment." Using other media, the feds announced that the Spanish-language version of the site that's "down for a moment" won't be up for about another month.
- In Rhode Island, Christine Ferguson, director of the state's Obamacare exchange site, said, “As this unveils, it is going to be very clear that everything can't be done on a computer.” Now she tells us.
- Nevada's Spanish version of its Silver State Exchange won't be up until at least November 15 – a delay of 45 days or more.
- In Oregon, home of the information-free flying hippie Obamacare commercial, state exchange director Rocky King predicted, "We could crash and burn and have to close it down." Right now, the site's posting a "down for maintenance" message, and the state's requiring people who want to sign up to use an insurance agent or community group for at least the next few weeks.
- The District of Columbia website can neither "calculate insurance-premium costs when factoring in tax credits, or subsidies, for lower-income customers" nor determine who's eligible for expanded Medicaid subsidies.
- Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers, of Washington state, tweeted, "Obamacare exchanges open today and #WA State’s website isn’t even working. Precursor to the complications to come."
- California's Obamacare exchange was offline.
- So was Connecticut's.
- And Kentucky's.
- For at least a month, Colorado's Connect for Health exchange site "will not be fully operational because of problems calculating the subsidies." Visitors to the site get an error message comprising seven lines of small type filled with programming jargon. (See slide show.)
- Maryland's state-run exchange won't be able to enroll small businesses until January or cover their employees until March at the earliest – delays of three and at least five months from the supposed October 1 startup. The exchange site itself isn't up, and customer service is telling callers it's "having issues."
- When Detroit News columnist Henry Payne tried to use the Obamacare exchange site in Michigan, he wrote, "After recording my user [ID] and password, Page 3 asked me three questions to assure account security. Except that the questions weren’t visible. Did this mean I was to make up my own questions (mother’s maiden name, for ex.)? No, when I tried my own question, nothing happened. When I clicked on the 'CREATE ACCOUNT' button, I got an error page telling me I must first answer the three questions ('THIS FIELD IS REQUIRED'). So I clicked the handy “Live chat” button to talk with an administrator to solve my security question problem. Except that an administrator did not reply to my question. For over half-an-hour. I gave up." No wonder his headline calls it The Affordable Glitch Act.
- In Minnesota, where watching a Paul Bunyan statue getting beaten up in television commercials was supposed to sell 20somethings on Obamacare, the website's announcing a half-day delay for most people – but "If you are an American Indian, we recommend waiting until next week..." What's more, "Our Assister Network of Agents/Brokers and Navigators are [still] in the final stages of certification." But not to worry, because a directory of the Assister Network – not necessarily the Assisters themselves – will be available in a few days.
- Virginians get a message to "Please Wait." But without the old magazines you'd find in a doctor's office to help you pass the time.
- Visitors to New York's site get, "Error 500: java.lang.NullPointerException." That explains everything.
So here we have a product that survey after survey shows a majority American consumers hate and whose target audience is hopelessly confused as to how it works. And now, to put icing on the cake, many of those consumers who do want the product can't get it because the retail outlets are hopelessly unready.
Oh, wait a second. They're not unready, according to Oregon Obamacare exchange executive director Rocky King. It's all part of a plan, he claims. Oregon set up these "soft launches," as he's calling them, to make sure trained personnel are involved to catch any initial technical glitches, he told CNN, because "The complexity of the system is just amazing." And as for what's happening – or rather not happening – as a result, he says, "It's not a delay, it's a stage."
Or, as HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius shrugged it all off on MSNBC, "So we have had a few slowdowns, a few glitches, but it’s sort of a great problem to have." Unless you happen to be one of the desperately sick and uninsured people Obamacare was supposedly designed to help in the first place.