If ever an industry were in need of some good PR, both individually and collectively, it’s the HMOs. They are attacked on all sides: by the media, by the American Medical Association (AMA), by consumer advocacy groups like Families USA and the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, by IPAs, and by unions such as the AFL-CIO.
If ever an industry were in need of some good PR, both individually
and collectively, it’s the HMOs. They are attacked on all sides: by the
media, by the American Medical Association (AMA), by consumer advocacy
groups like Families USA and the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer
Rights, by IPAs, and by unions such as the AFL-CIO.
Yet as our report shows (p19), the PR effort to date has been found
distinctly wanting, again both individually and collectively.
Of course, some would argue that that’s because HMOs still have much to
do to put their houses in order. Yet at the same time, there is little
to support the idea that fee-for-service plans do any better than
managed care when it comes to member satisfaction or quality of care.
And surely not every HMO should be tarred with the same brush?
The American Association of Health Plans (AAHP), the national
association for HMOs, Preferred Provider Organizations (PPOs) and other
groups, is trying hard. But it appears to be locked into a battle with
lobbyists and lawyers such that attention on consumers - the people who
suffer in the first place - is all but lost.
A Code of Conduct developed by the AAHP in December 1996 stipulates that
health plans openly communicate how they work for the benefit of
patients; that they make it clear that they are listening to the
concerns of patients and physicians are making needed changes; and that
they uphold high standards of accountability.
That was nearly three years ago. Yet when PRWeek tried to contact
communications professionals at 15 HMOs, only two would talk to us about
what they are doing - the sort of non-cooperation that not only
contradicts the Code of Conduct, but has also gotten HMOs a bad
reputation in the first place. One shudders to imagine how these firms
are dealing with journalists when they shun a magazine that is actually
trying to help to find a solution.
And what’s so frustrating is that when HMOs look outward and promote
their efforts, the effects are dramatic. Blue Cross Blue Shield has
started faxing out a weekly ’success story’ to the local media and to
legislators, in an effort to counter all the horror stories. It’s also
received a wealth of positive publicity by giving the media unfettered
access to the patient.
Pacificare of California has been getting great results with a community
outreach and PR campaign that stresses open communications and involves
third-party consumer groups.
But the other thing that makes the tale of communications inertia and
defensiveness so irritating is the lack of money that is put into PR.
The Coalition of Affordable and Quality Healthcare, which represents
many of the larger health plans, is putting perhaps one-half of 1% of
its estimated dollars 10 million advertising budget into PR, according
to Chris Foster of Burson-Marsteller.
As Foster says, HMOs have an image problem. And all the advertising in
the world isn’t going to change that because advertising cannot
HMOs need to go out there and honestly and openly promote
In other words, HMOs need a generous dose of public relations.