Top Insurance Marketing Exec Downplays Obamacare Glitches

Health Care Service Corp CMO Preaches Patience

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As the top marketer overseeing Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans in five states, Darren Rodgers has a lot riding on the successful implementation of Obamacare. And despite the glitch-filled roll out, he is not about to panic.

Darren Rodgers, CMO Healthcare Service Corp.
Darren Rodgers, CMO Healthcare Service Corp.

Consumers who have not been able to sign up online "must be frustrated," said Mr. Rodgers, senior VP and chief marketing officer of Health Care Service Corp., the nation's fourth-largest health insurer that operates plans in Illinois, Texas, Montana, New Mexico and Oklahoma. But "there is some time here for the growing pains of the process to work out before anyone is really impacted," he added. The plans won't take effect until Jan. 1, so the company is telling consumers that "we will keep working with you and the federal government" to make sure their coverage is effective on that date, he said.

The company is offering plans on the online federal health-care marketplace, HealthCare.gov, in every state it operates. Mr. Rodgers estimated that "hundreds" of people have enrolled in the company's plans through the federal exchange, but did not disclose an exact figure.

Despite the glitches, "every single day we have people who ... sign up and it flows through the process just as it should," Mr. Rodgers said. "That's not 100% of the time, but it does work every day." The good news, he said, is that younger, healthier people -- whose participation is critical -- are likely to wait a while to enroll, if past patterns hold. "So I'm not even worried about that yet," he said.

But at least one of the states where the company operates, Illinois, has delayed paid advertising promoting Obamacare until the web site is operating more smoothly. "We have robust media plans and intentions but the golden rule in private-sector marketing is don't stimulate demand unless you can deliver the product," said Kelly Sullivan, chief marketing officer for Get Covered Illinois, the state organization in charge of the Illinois roll-out. The PR effort, which has a reported $35 million budget, is being led by FleishmanHillard.

The state is continuing its ground-level, word-of-mouth marketing campaign that includes circulating information through churches, libraries and other civic organizations, she said. "What we are encouraging people to do is get smart now, get educated now, even if they can't get covered exactly now," she said, adding "there is no advantage to trying to enroll now [because] coverage doesn't kick in until January."

Mr. Rodgers said Health Care Service Corp. is moving full-speed ahead on its marketing. Fall is normally a busy advertising period as enrollment begins for a wave of plans, including employer-based offerings, and the "enrollment for the federal exchanges is just part of that," he said. Obamacare-targeted outreach has included digital videos that direct consumers to a Blue Cross and Blue Shield branded web site that serves as a user guide to the Affordable Care Act.

In traditional media, such as TV and outdoor, the company has stuck with a general brand message, but amplified its targeted media buy to reach uninsured people. The strategy includes more buys in Spanish-language media, as well as at bus stops, Mr. Rodgers said.

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