By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
A Colorado lawmaker has threatened legislation to clamp down on Colorado’s health exchange after a partner’s racy ad campaign went viral around the U.S.
Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, attacked a social media campaign launched by the liberal group, Progress Now, and health advocates at the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative.
The campaign used provocative photos to encourage young people to buy health insurance. The most racy ad feature a young woman flashing her birth control pills and saying she hopes it’s as easy to get a hot guy “between the covers” as it was to get birth control. The ads also appeal to hard-drinking young people with a photo of a “shot-ski” and a keg stand.
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Colorado’s health exchange had nothing to do with the ads. Nonetheless, CEO Patty Fontneau said Friday during a legislative oversight committee hearing that she would discuss the issue with the exchange board, which meets today.
During the Friday hearing, Fontneau said that about 30 percent of people enrolling for health care in Colorado so far are adults under age 34. An exchange spokesman declined to release any demographics to support Fontneau’s statement. She also said that most people signing up are ages 55 to 64.
If about one-third of sign-ups are coming from young people, that number would be significant since young people are essential to the success of health form. Only about 16 percent of Coloradans are ages 19 to 29. A large number of them — about one in four — are uninsured. (Click here to read a report from The Colorado Trust about the so-called “Young Invincibles.”)
Managers for the advocacy groups who are trying to appeal to the young and other uninsured people say they used no tax dollars. The campaign tapped volunteer models and only cost about $5,000. The ads have gone viral and the groups’ website www.DoYouGotInsurance.com has generated more than 16.5 million hits since the campaign launched on Oct. 22, according to Adam Fox, director of strategic engagement for the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative.
“We’ve been successful in getting people to talk about health insurance,” Fox said.
In fact, advocates around the country now want to use the ads, and clinic managers in New York and New Jersey are enlarging the images to create posters.
“This campaign was developed completely independently with no input from the (Colorado) marketplace or its board. I don’t know why they’re asking (CEO Patty) Fontneau about it,” Fox said.
He acknowledged there has been some blowback, but the campaign has far exceeded the creators’ expectations.
“There has been some controversy around the ads and we’ve seen a lot of positive reactions as well,” Fox said. “Our goal is to have the images out there and have them used by anybody who wants to use them. We’re not at all proprietary.”
The group is planning another wave of ads in mid-December including holiday-themed photos.
Some conservative lawmakers think the ads are damaging Colorado’s reputation.
“It significantly detracts from the credibility of the exchange. It would seem to me that there may be need for legislation,” Rep. Gardner said during the Friday meeting of lawmakers charged with overseeing Colorado’s exchange.
He did not say exactly what legislation he might propose, but said any exchange partners should be limited in how they can use the exchange’s name. The ads don’t use Connect for Health’s name. The groups’ website provides links showing people how they can sign up for health insurance in Colorado and elsewhere in the U.S.
Multiple groups around Colorado and the U.S. are encouraging people of all ages to sign up for health insurance while some opponents are urging young people to refuse to participate.
Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Denver, dismissed Gardner’s threat saying legislation that would attempt to control advertising would trample on free speech rights.
But Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, said Ulibarri was wrong.
“It’s no imposition on free speech for the exchange to officially condemn something that is outrageous and insulting. I’m surprised that you’re not being more aggressive in that area,” Lundberg said to Fontneau.
Lundberg also questioned how reliable Colorado’s health exchange technology has been. In fact, during the hearing he tried to sign up and got an error message saying: “Thank you for your patience while we work to fix a technical issue.” Lundberg said he was able to sign in a little while later, but said that claims that the exchange is working nearly 100 percent of the time may be misleading.
“Your availability for me today was 50 percent,” he said.
Fontneau said that the exchange has experienced outages from time to time and she said she would check to see what problems had occurred on Friday.
Several Republicans also said they were appalled by the high number of Medicaid sign-ups compared to relatively low numbers of people signing up for private health insurance. In Colorado and elsewhere around the country, about 90 percent of early sign-ups are new Medicaid clients while about 10 percent of people are buying private insurance.
“This exchange was really created for the private market,” said Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Monument, who helped create Colorado’s exchange. She took a lot of flack for crossing the aisle to co-sponsor the legislation with former Sen. Betty Boyd, a Democrat from Lakewood.
Now Stephens is concerned that a clunky, invasive Medicaid application has driven customers away. Democrat Beth McCann of Denver joined Stephens in wanting a simpler system where customers could bypass the Medicaid application.
“To me this is really disconcerting,” said Stephens. “The hour is nigh and giving away a lot of your personal information has me really concerned.”
Fontneau and Colorado’s Medicaid director, Sue Birch, both said that the Medicaid application has been simplified, but they said federal law requires people to be denied for Medicaid before they can apply for tax rebates through the health exchange.
Stephens also said the advocates’ ads offended her.
“I ran those ads by my 21-year-old and he thought they were cheesy,” Stephens said. “And I made that call to see if these were our ads.”
Stephens said she likes Connect for Health’s own ads, which show people around the state with bubbles over their heads indicating that “here, here and here” Coloradans can now sign up for health care.
“My concern was not having a very quick response and saying, ‘No, this isn’t us.’”
She said failure to respond right away could harm the exchange.
“I don’t think things like that bode very well for the exchange,” Stephens said. “This is a really tumultuous time in health care and the health care industry. I don’t want to see one side over here undo the really great things over here.”