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3 States, 3 Different Obamacare Outreach Plans

How many ads will it take to get the uninsured signed up for the new coverage options launching Oct. 1?

States do not know yet. But those running their own marketplaces are rolling out some creative new outreach techniques to get there as quickly as possible.

In Oregon, where recent television ads resemble a Portlandia acid trip, the state is making a play for tech-savvy young invincibles by holding Google Hangout sessions, chats on Reddit and making their catchy jingles available on Pandora and iTunes.

In both Oregon and Maryland, public schools are sending students home with fliers in their backpacks that explain Obamacare to parents who may be newly eligible.

And in Nevada, ads are focusing on the hard facts—including information on the tax penalty consumers may face if they fail to listen to the state’s admonishments to sign up for health insurance.

The insights come from a new report from the Kaiser Family Foundation profiling outreach and enrollment efforts in Maryland, Oregon and Nevada, which have been leading the way in preparing for Oct. 1, when the health insurance marketplaces will open for business. (Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the foundation).

All three states conducted extensive consumer research to find out which brands and campaigns would work best for their target populations.

Oregon, which plans to invest about $17 million in its outreach and marketing campaign, elected to start out light and humorous with a series of ads featuring local musicians. “It’s our ‘hello’ to Oregon. We’d like it as the warm embrace, the warm and fuzzy. This is who we are,” said one Oregon marketplace official quoted in the KFF report.

Maryland plans to spend a more modest $2.5 million on its advertising campaign through 2014. After learning that more than 7 in 10 Marylanders had watched, listened or attended a Baltimore Ravens football game in the past year, the state decided to place TV and radio commercials during games and on the Jumbotron at the stadium. The state is concentrating more resources on face-to-face enrollment efforts, including providing information in 170 CVS pharmacies and 100 Giant Food supermarket stores.

Nevada research found that individuals wanted the facts and nothing but, so the state is using a more serious, fact-based approach in advertisements, which were specifically designed to appeal to both Hispanics and non-Hispanics. The state is planning a staggered launch of the marketing campaign, in order to minimize traffic in the initial days of enrollment, in case there are any major glitches.

And all three states are relying heavily on in-person consumer assistance through trusted community organizations, including churches. This will be particularly important in rural communities, where residents may have limited internet connections and will need help enrolling.

Samantha Shepherd, who leads the outreach and enrollment assistance campaigns at Cover Oregon, says the state is working with Meals on Wheels in difficult-to-reach communities and looking for community events to attend.  She spoke at an event at the Kaiser Family Foundation Tuesday where the report’s findings were discussed. One small Oregon community with just 500 residents, for example, has an annual crab fest where it’s possible to come in contact with almost everyone—the perfect opportunity to get them enrolled, Shepherd says.

But despite all their early outreach efforts, many exchange officials say they expect few people to sign up for coverage in the beginning.

“We anticipate very few people going through the enrollment process in the month of October,” said Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California, another state marketplace that has been in the lead on outreach and enrollment. He spoke at a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation event on Tuesday.  Lee says he’s not worried about a slow start, as long as consumers sign up for coverage by Dec. 15. That’s the deadline for guaranteeing that insurance takes effect on Jan. 1.

Shepherd says that Oregon is just aiming to have all of the basics in place by Oct. 1, so that consumers will have a chance to start looking at their options. But don’t expect it to be perfect. Think of a 1972 Honda, she suggests. “That’s basically our goal for October.  We want to drive across our state and make sure we’re picking up all the Oregonians as possible, and we want to do it on the best gas mileage, and we don’t want to break down.”

But the work doesn’t end there, she says. “We’re going to keep building that Honda, and we’re going get to having leather interior and sun roofs and CD players and cruise control and all that fun stuff. But on Day One, there’s no radio, there’s no air conditioning, there’s no power locks or power windows,” she adds. “And that’s OK.”