Washington State Launches Ad Blitz Promoting Health Exchange

With five weeks left until Washington state launches its online health-insurance exchange, many residents may have heard little about the program designed to offer coverage to the uninsured.

That’s begun to change.

The state began rolling out the first phase of its ad campaign last week to let the public know about the exchange, a central part of the federal Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

The campaign, aimed at signing up , began airing radio spots last Tuesday and online ads last Wednesday. The aim is to sign up 130,000 uninsured people by the end of this year and 280,000 people in 2014 to buy coverage in the online marketplace, called Washington Healthplanfinder.

The campaign is drawing from $26.3 million in federal funds the state has received to support marketing and outreach efforts.

The exchange was created under provisions of the law that delegated the establishment of such marketplaces to states that chose to build them. Beginning Oct. 1, Washington residents will be able to go to the Healthplanfinder website to compare 31 health plans, apply for subsidies to pay the premiums and enroll in coverage to take effect Jan. 1.

State officials hope the ad campaign, combined with an array of outreach and marketing efforts, will drive a large number of Washingtonians to the website, and not just those who are uninsured.

“Our goal is to have the more than 6½ million residents of this state go to Healthplanfinder to see what opportunities are there for them or someone they know,” said Michael Marchand, communications director of the health-benefit-exchange agency.

The hope is that people will go to the website and pass on what they learn to friends and family members who do not.

“Everyone knows someone who can take advantage of the opportunities the Healthplanfinder will provide,” Marchand said.

Marchand’s agency is working with a variety of community groups and organizations to spread the word about the Healthplanfinder website.

The exchange agency has been posting regular updates on its Facebook page (
) and through its Twitter feed (@WAplanfinder).

“We’re also looking at leveraging YouTube for certain elements of the campaign,” Marchand said.

State officials recognize they face a big challenge in trying to persuade people who are uninsured to sign up for coverage.

“We recognize they’re a very hard-to-reach population,” says Marchand. Many of them have had little experience with health insurance and may be unfamiliar with how it works. Others have tried to get coverage in the past, but without success.

Market research found that many of Washington’s uninsured are skeptical about their chances of finding a health plan that is affordable, said David Smith, a partner at GMMB, a strategic communications firm with offices in Seattle and Washington, D.C., which is coordinating the advertising and marketing campaign.

To address these doubts, the ads emphasize that Healthplanfinder offers the uninsured a new opportunity to enroll in affordable coverage and that financial assistance is available.

“There’s a first time for everything,” one radio spot tells listeners. “Like this October, when you might qualify for low-cost or even free health insurance for the first time.”

The ad campaign is starting small but will kick into high gear by mid- to late September.

In addition to radio and online ads, print ads will appear the week after Labor Day in community-based publications, including African-American newspapers and foreign-language publications. Ads will be translated into Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Spanish and Russian.

Television commercials also won’t hit the airwaves until after Labor Day, and possibly not until mid-September, Marchand said.

That puts Washington behind states such as Colorado and Oregon, which have been running television commercials about their programs for several weeks.

But there are strategic reasons to delay, according to Marchand.

State officials do not want to launch an ad blitz before there are resources in place to answer people’s questions about Healthplanfinder, which the ads are expected to stimulate.

“Other states went up with ads early, but there was really nothing for them to share other than the message ‘this is coming soon,’ and that isn’t enough,” Marchand said.

The state is setting up a toll-free hotline and a call center in Spokane scheduled to go live Sept. 3. Television commercials will start airing sometime after that.

Washington officials also don’t want to stimulate people’s interest in Healthplanfinder too far in advance of when they can actually sign up for coverage.

“Washington is certainly not alone in deciding not to do a big advertising push until there is a functional website, a call center, and real options that people can act on to start purchasing coverage,” said Caroline Pearson, vice president at Avalere Health, a Washington, D.C., consulting firm that is tracking marketing and outreach efforts across the country.

The $26.3 million Washington has in federal funds for advertising and outreach through 2014 is “a robust amount,” Pearson said.

The amount includes nearly $19 million awarded to GMMB, most of which is expected to be spent on buying ad placements, Marchand said.

This story is part of a collaboration that includes The Seattle Times and Kaiser Health News.