Obamacare: Here comes the information tsunami

A storm of ads is confusing the public, and dubious media partnerships don't help

As we approach the moment when the centerpiece of Obamacare will be implemented, on October 1, a deluge of information and spin is coming with it. In her column today in The Cook Political Report, Elizabeth Wilner predicts “an unprecedented confluence of political and product ads.”

Those ads will be in conflict with each other, and will be brought to you by strange bedfellows teaming up on all sides of the ideological fence, trying to woo the public with both anti-Obamacare or pro-Obamacare ads, or with plain old product sales pitches for insurance. Insurers are siding with the government to sell the law, she observes, and conservatives and business interests, usually insurance company allies, are trying to undermine it.

She could have mentioned the media. Ideally, journalism would be a guide through the confusion, but that’s not always the case. A new poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that only 8 percent—that’s right: 8 percent—said they had “a lot of trust” in information from the news media. That’s not a great showing for us journalists, and partnerships that blur the line between sellers of a product and objective news media don’t help.

Here’s a case in point: The upcoming public Affordable Care Act Forum at a hotel in Davie, FL, near Ft. Lauderdale, is yet another example of this Obamacare weirdness. It involves the Sun-Sentinel, a Pulitzer Prize winner with a reputation for hard-hitting investigations of health insurance companies and excellent healthcare reporting, and the state’s biggest health insurer, Florida Blue.

The September 12 event, which is advertised on the paper’s website as the “Sun-Sentinel’s Affordable Care Act Forum presented by Florida Blue” promises to “bring together a knowledgeable panel of people in the business to discuss the future of health care.” Attendees have to pay $20 to hear the discussion.

In a memo to another journalists that I obtained, Paul C. Kluding, a senior communications consultant with Florida Blue, said the paper had “approached us about this marketing and speaking opportunity. This is the only media-focused event in which we are participating, but we are doing a number of awareness and education events across the state. We continue to evaluate opportunities as they are presented to us.”

This one must have sounded mighty enticing. According to a Sun-Sentinel spokesperson, Mary Helen Olejnik, the speakers “chosen by the events marketing team” include the CEO of Florida Blue; the senior VP of Memorial Healthcare System, which has one of the largest hospitals in the state; a state senator; and the state executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business, an arch foe of Obamacare.

Given the turmoil in Florida over Obamacare, Medicaid expansion, and now Gov. Rick Scott scaring people with the flaky argument that the federal navigator program for enrolling consumers in the exchange may not have adequate safeguards for privacy, you’d think that a representative from a consumer or advocacy group would have something to say on a panel like this—especially since the Sun-Sentinel reported last week that some groups were having trouble working with state officials to spread the word about the new law.

Kluding did not answer my requests for comment on the partnership. I wanted to know what the insurer expected from the event—sales, for instance—and whether Florida Blue reps would be offering literature about its products, especially those offered in the state exchange, which will be run by the federal government. And why did the public have to pay a fee to hear about the law?

And while Olejnik responded to my request, she answered only a couple of the 10 questions I posed. For instance, she declined to say whether the insurer would be handing out sales literature, what aspects of the Affordable Care Act would be discussed, whether there was a conflict between reporting on the editorial side and this event, and whether there had been any Sun-Sentinel stories about Florida Blue’s insurance products.

As we see it, one of the tasks of the news media during these next several months is to help consumers understand the products they’ll be pushed to buy. I mean really understand—that is, help people to navigate the trade-offs between low premiums and high deductibles and coinsurance, and what costs are being applied to out-patient services, the kind more and more people are getting. Learning all this is not easy, and people need as much help as they can get from neutral, knowledgeable sources.

A few months ago, I heard a presentation by a representative from Florida Blue, who explained the company’s marketing strategy for insurance sold to Medicare beneficiaries. It would involve a suite of products, with both policies and pitches crafted to fit people’s needs and lifestyles as they age. That suggests consumers will be faced with lots of choices and will need help separating the wheat from the chaff.

Will the Sun-Sentinel be up to the task?

Follow @USProjectCJR for more posts from this author and the rest of the United States Project team. And for Trudy Lieberman’s resource guide to covering the ins and outs of buying insurance on the state exchanges, see Open Wide, from CJR’s July/August issue.

Related content:
Covering Obamacare: A bit of bad advice

Open Wide: the fine print

The Big Boys: Insurance agents protect their turf

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman. Tags: , , ,