Sep 15, 2012 No Comments ›› Pat Dollard
(NY TIMES) SACRAMENTO — The meeting came to order, the five members of the California Health Benefit Exchange seated onstage with dozens of consumer advocates and others looking on. On the agenda: what to name the online marketplace where millions of residents will be able to shop for medical coverage under President Obama’s health care law. An adviser presented the options, meant to be memorable, appealing and clear. What about CaliHealth? Or Healthifornia?
“I am kind of drawn to Avocado,” declared Kim Belshé, a member of the exchange’s board of directors, which is hustling to make dozens of decisions as the clock ticks toward deadlines set by the law.
Delay and outright resistance to the health care overhaul might be the norm in much of the country, but not here. California — home to seven million uninsured people, more than any other state — is at the forefront of preparations for January 2014, when a controversial requirement that most Americans have medical coverage or pay a penalty takes effect.
So far, only 13 states and the District of Columbia have told the Obama administration they intend to set up the insurance exchanges that are supposed to provide a marketplace for people to buy health plans. None are being watched as closely as California, whose singular challenges, from the size, diversity and geographic spread of its uninsured population to its vast budget problems, make it stand out. Many feel a successful rollout here could convince other states with high numbers of uninsured residents that the law can be made to work for them.
“We are the example,” said Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California, an advocacy group. “If it can be done here, it can be done anywhere.”
The California Health Benefit Exchange has already hired 50 employees and is poised to hire 50 more. Construction of the Web portal through which some three million people are expected to buy insurance by 2019, and through which many others will likely enroll in Medicaid, is under way.
This fall, the board will seek bids from insurers to sell plans through the exchange, and it intends to have the portal up and running by next summer, several months before enrollment starts in October 2013.
Realizing that much of the battle will be in the public relations realm, the exchange has poured significant resources into a detailed marketing plan — developed not by state health bureaucrats but by the global marketing powerhouse Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, which has an initial $900,000 contract with the exchange. The Ogilvy plan includes ideas for reaching an uninsured population that speaks dozens of languages and is scattered through 11 media markets: advertising on coffee cup sleeves at community colleges to reach adult students, for example, and at professional soccer matches to reach young Hispanic men.
And Hollywood, an industry whose major players have been supportive of President Obama and his agenda, will be tapped. Plans are being discussed to pitch a reality television show about “the trials and tribulations of families living without medical coverage,” according to the Ogilvy plan. The exchange will also seek to have prime-time television shows, like “Modern Family,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and Univision telenovelas, weave the health care law into their plots.
“I’d like to see 10 of the major TV shows, or telenovelas, have people talking about ‘that health insurance thing,’ ” said Peter V. Lee, the exchange’s executive director. “There are good story lines here.”
Although the exchange will not start advertising until next year, the California Endowment, a foundation that has spent $15 million promoting the law, is running newspaper and television ads, including one in which the television personality Dr. Mehmet Oz exhorts viewers to “get educated, get engaged, get enrolled.” That campaign has targeted Hispanics, who make up more than half of the state’s uninsured population.
But for all the progress, California’s intractable budget woes loom as a threat to implementation here. Even with the federal government financing most of the insurance expansion, the state’s contribution could exceed $2 billion a year, according to an estimate that was made by the administration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, who signed the legislation creating an insurance exchange here in September 2010, earlier than any other state. Diana S. Dooley, the state’s Health and Human Services secretary, said the administration of Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, was working on a new estimate.