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Focus on exchanges gives plans an opening to repair their image among consumers.
The rollout of the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) insurance exchanges has reminded many Americans why they dislike healthcare insurance companies. However, the ACA could also be an opportunity for the industry to repair its image, say marketing and public relations experts.
For example, in October, millions who were covered by existing healthcare policies in the individual market were notified that their policies were not being renewed because the plans did not meet the ACA’s minimum coverage requirements. The discontinuations seemed contrary to President Obama’s promise, “if you like your health plan, you can keep it,” and caused consumer backlash at the president and insurers.
In the minds of many plan members, the notices also stirred memories of previous, seemingly arbitrary policy cancellations, double-digit premium increases, refusals to cover certain treatments, and other actions that gave the industry a negative perception in the public eye. While there may have been sound business reasons behind those actions, for many, they have created an impression of an uncaring industry that puts profits ahead of their customers’ health and happiness.
Insurance, of course, is not a business that naturally generates a lot of consumer affection.
“The ultimate fact is nobody loves their insurance company. You buy insurance in the hope that you never have to use it,” says J.B. Silvers, professor of healthcare finance at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management and former chief executive officer of a health plan. “That’s a totally different experience from buying a car in the expectation of getting pleasure out of it. You buy insurance in the expectation of avoiding pain.”
Even so, experts say, the industry has been notoriously bad at trying to change public perceptions and communicating its side of the story.
“Historically, health plans have not been good at educating consumers on what health insurance really is, and they haven’t been good at proactively telling their story,” says Kimberly Wold Janke, MBA, vice president of account planning and brand strategy for Flint Group in Fargo, N.D., the agency of record for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Dakota (BCBSND).
“Most consumers don’t understand the true cost of healthcare and how it drives the cost of their insurance,” Janke adds. “Their only interaction with it is usually in the form of their insurance premium. As we’ve seen the trends of [medical] costs going up faster than inflation, the villain becomes the people who are giving them that message: the health plan.”
She says consumers take out their anger and frustration on their plans. Often payers are the only source communicating with patients about costs.
“We’re just a reflection of the inflation in the [healthcare] industry,” says Jared Chaney, executive vice president of corporate communications and sales and customer relations for Medical Mutual of Ohio. “Nobody wants to see prices go up, and we try to be honest about saying we have an essential product that is going to be unaffordable for some people. It’s not a good situation, but it’s the business we’re in, and we try to do the best we can for our policyholders.”
Health plans sometimes needlessly add to their reputational problems by adopting an “us versus them” approach to their relations with hospitals and healthcare providers, says Rhoda Weiss, PhD, founding president of the American Hospital Assn.’s Society for Healthcare Strategy and Market Development, and a healthcare consultant who has worked with numerous health plans and health systems.
“When it comes time for renewing contracts, health plans often get into very public arguments,” Weiss says. “But I think there’s a real opportunity for change, and there are many ways companies can regain trust and be seen as the people protecting customers against financial loss due to medical conditions. I’ve seen it happen.”
With their emphasis on comparison shopping for plans and essential benefits, the exchanges represent a chance for health plans to begin mending fences with their customers and the public at large.
“Things like the provider networks, copays, deductibles, those are now all known aspects” says Silvers. “As long as they’re transparent and can easily be compared, then consumers at least know what they’re getting.”
In addition, some plans may decide to highlight the benefits of ACA provisions for members, such as guaranteed issue.
“There’s an opportunity for them to make hay out of the things they now have to do that are socially positive,” he says.
From her years of counseling health plans on their public relations and marketing strategies, Weiss has developed a list of steps a company can take to improve its public image. Foremost among these, she says, is to become identified as a leader in a health-related issue.
“Pick a topic, like combating obesity, and become the company that says ‘we’re going to partner with schools and employers and anyone else to combat it,’” she says. “Team up with partners that are respected in the community, whether it’s healthcare organizations, schools or churches. The important thing is to stand for something.”
Weiss also recommends plans develop good relations with physicians in the local area.
“Doctors have a tremendous amount of influence over their patients. So be seen as the health plan that doesn’t hassle physicians, and pays them in a timely fashion,” she says.
Along the same lines, it’s important plans be helpful to the clerical and administrative people they interact with as well as non-physician providers that support doctors.
“They are often the ones on the front lines of dealing with insurance providers and will let patients know if they’re unhappy with a health insurance company,” she says.
An additional important step for polishing a health plan’s public image is to develop strategic relationships with hospitals in a community, for joint marketing, immunizations or preventive screenings, for example. The goodwill generated by such collaborations can also help to protect healthcare insurers against public pushback should the plan opt for narrow-network products that only include those more effective providers.
Plans must make sure their own employees are engaged in the image strategy, too.
“Does your workforce-and I mean every member-really understand the ACA?” Weiss says. “Are they brand advocates and ambassadors for the plan? Are you using them to spread the word in PTAs and churches and other places in the community?”
Finally, Weiss says, health plans can become corporate sponsors of community events and organizations. But in doing so, they must also ensure that they are recognized for their support.
“I’ve seen many times a health plan sponsor an event because it’s the CEO’s favorite charity, but the company doesn’t get any recognition for it. If you’re going to support community organizations, you’ve got to make sure your name and your people are prominently associated with it, to get the bang for that buck,” she says.
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