The sustained attacks against the health insurance industry, and particularly Medicare Advantage (MA) plans, during the past year show no signs of slowing down. Due to the political forces involved, and the decline in society’s trust in institutions, allegations of deceptive industry marketing practices, investigative media reports about the use of artificial intelligence to improperly deny coverage of claims, and other negative coverage of the industry will likely continue.
Year after year, surveys have shown that the relationship consumers have with their health plans is fraught. Last summer, the KFF Survey of Consumer Experiences with Health Insurance found half of adults with private insurance have difficulty with the costs. Another survey found 62% of Americans do not trust their health plan. Data from a Harris poll showed that 40% of people feel the U.S. health system is too focused on profit. Opinion pieces talk about “the simmering resentment of growing numbers of patients who feel victimized by this system.”
Regardless of the role payers play in our complex healthcare ecosystem, they are being blamed. Whether it’s the cost of care, provider wait times, drug shortages, or quality issues, people are becoming increasingly angry and are not afraid to make it known. In this heated landscape, payers should be proactive about proving the value they bring to the healthcare system and to their communities. Reputation issues can quickly become barriers to growth that find their way on to financial statements.
Proactively attending to your plan’s reputation and demonstrating that you care about earning and maintaining members’ trust will help mitigate the collateral reputational damage some health plans are experiencing. Communications can play a key role in building the level of brand resilience that enables health plans, and especially MA plans, to withstand negative media coverage as we enter a new election cycle.
Here are six actionable tips that can turn industry challenges into health plan opportunities:
Crafting stories that resonate with the public can influence attitudes and behavior, countering negative political narratives and attacks. By highlighting the powerful human impact stories that result from the work your health plan is doing, you can paint a vivid picture of your plan’s commitment to members, its focus on ensuring continued access to high-quality healthcare, its dedication to improving health equity and its positive impact on members’ lives.
Study after study shows that Medicare beneficiaries find their health benefits perplexing. Ask a group of three MA members who understands their health benefits and only one of them will raise a hand. The other two are confused and frustrated. It’s easier for the public to blame companies for the things that upset them when they’re unhappy and don’t understand the products they’re buying. You can address this by educating your members about the benefits available to them and helping them understand how to navigate their plan before they need it. By building health insurance literacy and increasing understanding before a member is ill, you’ll set them up for positive member experiences, which can translate into higher star ratings, increased member retention and a better balance sheet.
To build trust with your members and the public, which studies suggest should be an important goal for the industry, transparency is key. Pull back the curtain and tell positive stories about the people who make your plan tick. By helping the public understand how health plans work, your plan can become the go-to resource for information about how and why the health system works the way it does and the best ways to use it to their advantage. For example, you could have a member of your Patient Advocacy team talk about times when they’ve had the greatest impact on members’ lives. This story can then be used to humanize your plan externally and build employee morale and engagement internally.
Be ready to advocate publicly for policies that bolster your organization’s reputation. Communicate how current policies may be implicated in industry challenges and why better policies would help improve member and population health outcomes. Advocating for positive policy change will establish your executives as thought leaders who work toward solutions and seek to optimize healthcare access and outcomes for everyone. Tackling issues head-on will enhance the tenor of the national conversation and bring your plan increased, positive visibility.
Thought leadership content enhances the credibility of your leaders and positions them as drivers of industry progress. Your leaders can ignite and drive the industry conversation by providing expert commentary on the impact of policies on your health plan’s members and explaining how policy proposals may impact their lives. This type of commentary can positively influence broader public perception. Contributing to the national conversation about the role that policies play in health equity and the social determinants of health, patient safety, access to care, and the cost and quality of care hits many of the hot button issues of interest to both the public and the media. This increases the chances of your work being accepted by high-impact publications and read by your key stakeholders.
Despite the best intentions, crises happen. When they do, it is imperative to have a detailed crisis communication plan in place and ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice. The plan will ensure teams can address public relations challenges promptly and effectively to maintain the public’s trust in your organization.
By building these components into your communications and public relations strategy, your health plan can build trust, successfully navigate crises and create the resilience required to maintain a positive public image no matter what the policy and political environment sends your way. Being strategic and proactive can turn 2024 into an opportunity to take control of your plan’s reputation.