Insurance exchange glitches lead to messaging shift

As software glitches continue to plague the insurance exchanges created as part of the Affordable Care Act, outreach for the marketplaces has shifted from being action-oriented to education-focused.

WASHINGTON: As software glitches continue to plague the insurance exchanges created as part of the Affordable Care Act, outreach for the marketplaces has shifted from being action-oriented to education-focused.

Illinois is one of the states that is operating its exchange as a joint venture with the federal government. As a result, it had to wait before getting the go-ahead to hire a PR firm and launch an education campaign. By the time it awarded a $35 million contract to FleishmanHillard to promote the exchange in July, states like California and New York were well into their awareness-raising efforts, said Kelly Sullivan, CMO for Get Covered Illinois.

Even after playing catch-up with an aggressive PR effort, the state's marketplace hit another wall on October 1 when the Get Covered Illinois site sent those trying to sign up for insurance to Healthcare.gov, which has been hindered by error messages.

As the state worked to fix the problems, “We've had to tweak our message to emphasize [the tagline] Get Smart Now, giving the federal government the chance to smooth out its systems, and then we'll pivot to a sharper activation message around Thanksgiving,” Sullivan said. However, those looking to check if they are eligible to sign up for Medicaid can continue to do so without a wait because it uses a different system, Sullivan said.

Hawaii did not have to rely on the federal government to get residents enrolled, but it has issued an apology as it tries to get online. Its messaging has emphasized that the state is trying to get its system operational, but it is still encouraging residents and small businesses to get educated, according to a representative.

In a statement, exchange director Coral Andrews said she wanted “everyone to know we are focusing all our efforts on getting the website up and running by October 15.”

She added that “even though we may be getting off to a slower start than anyone wanted, we are confident that everyone will still have the time they need to shop for coverage, compare options, and choose a plan by the end of the open-enrollment period next March.”

Oregon is insisting that its timetable has not changed despite glitches on its site, and the state insists it had planned to focus on education rather than enrollment in the first few weeks, said Ariane Holm, senior PR specialist at Cover Oregon.

She added that the state has not felt the need to change its message to address Republicans' rhetoric about the need to defund or delay the Affordable Care Act in order to bring the country out of the partial government shutdown.

“We're staying above the fray, moving forward as planned,” Holm said. “We're not getting involved in the political debate in Washington.”

Not all states and territories have faced glitches. Washington DC's insurance exchange hasn't experienced any problems, said Richard Sorian, its communications director.

Response to the site has been strong. By the end of week one, 8,500 accounts were created as people determine which plans are best for them.

“It's been a positive experience, and we're shifting emphasis toward enrollment as well as education,” Sorian said.

His staff is relying heavily on “navigators,” who have been hired to educate residents about the exchanges and get them on the road to signing up. Numerous grassroots events are taking place around the city, he said.

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