Editorial: HMOs still need a large dose of PR

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.

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

listen.



HMOs need to go out there and honestly and openly promote

themselves.



In other words, HMOs need a generous dose of public relations.



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