Insurance firms prep for Supreme Court healthcare-reform decision

Healthcare and insurance industry communicators, and their agency partners, will have their work cut out for them regardless of the Supreme Court's ultimate decision on the Affordable Care Act.

Healthcare and insurance industry communicators, and their agency partners, will have their work cut out for them regardless of the Supreme Court's ultimate decision on the Affordable Care Act.

If upheld, the companies will have to increase their consumer-facing outreach. If part or all of the law is struck down, insurance firms will face a scope of reputation-management challenges, say industry experts.

“The biggest concern is that the ambiguity makes it difficult to do all kinds of business plans,” says Claire Sheahan, SVP and healthcare group leader at Fleishman-Hillard Washington, who was one of the many industry executives who fervently monitored this week's Supreme Court hearings. “That affects communications planning.”

The high court is considering whether the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate, which requires everyone to be insured, is constitutionally sound, or if the rest of the bill can stand if the insurance mandate is struck down. The court also heard arguments about the healthcare reform bill's expansion of Medicaid.

In addition, the law established the creation of health insurance exchanges, which are marketplaces where consumers buy insurance and insurers sell plans. The exchanges are prompting insurance companies to communicate with consumers to differentiate themselves in the marketplace, a first for many companies that are used to b-to-b outreach, says Sheahan, a former public affairs manager at the Blue Cross & Blue Shield Association.

Last fall, Fleishman helped Cigna launch the “Go You” campaign, the company's first integrated media and branding campaign targeting the individual consumer.

If the part of the law containing the exchanges is upheld, states themselves will also promote them to their residents. Ogilvy PR Worldwide just won a contract worth $900,000 from California to help the state do so. Other RFPs have been released in the past year seeking similar support.

“There is a lot of information needed to make sure people are educated enough to purchase care,” says Sheahan. “If that part of the bill were to be removed, it would have tremendous business implications for communications companies.”

Insurance companies will likely face a number of reputation-management challenges if the Supreme Court strikes the individual insurance mandate, adds Jeff Smokler, SVP for healthcare at Imre. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that removing the individual mandate would cut the number of newly insured individuals in half from 32 million to 16 million. Insurance companies would stand to lose millions in guaranteed revenue and, as a result, they would likely raise premiums by 40% to 60% to cover the new consumers they must pay to cover, says Smokler.

“From a communications perspective, [insurance companies] will be villainized,” he says. In response, insurers will have to reach out to consumers to explain how their businesses work and why such increases are necessary.

Insurance giant Kaiser Permanente is moving forward with various communications activities despite the Affordable Care Act's uncertain future.

“An enormous amount of work has gone on already, from infrastructure to staffing to research and analysis of the demographic mix of patients we are likely to serve when reform starts in 2014,” explains David Langness, executive director of government relations, health policy, and healthcare reform communications at the company. He declined to comment on what the company will do if the individual mandate or the entire law is struck down.

However, much of the work done by both healthcare companies and communications firms will be used in some form regardless of the court's decision, says Wendy Lund, CEO of GCI Health.

“As communicators and marketers, we adjust and adapt continuously,” she explains. “If the law is struck down, the work that's gone on is not a waste. Marketers will adapt again and merge their learnings, strategies, approaches, and outcomes into future efforts.”

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