N.H. slow to educate residents on health care law

CONCORD -- Known for kicking off the presidential primary process, New Hampshire is far from first in the nation when it comes to educating its residents about the federal health care overhaul law. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, and the state isn't alone.

The New Hampshire Health Plan expects to award a marketing and advertising contract next week, nearly a month after enrollment began in the new online insurance markets created by the law. Meanwhile, training is getting underway at the six organizations that will serve as so-called marketplace assisters.

While it would have been helpful to have a New Hampshire-specific website, advertising campaign and outreach plan in place before enrollment began, there are some benefits to waiting, said Executive Director Michael Degnan. New Hampshire can learn from the experience of other states, he said, and wait until changes have been made to the federal government's problem-plagued health insurance website.

"Clearly, we had a bit of a late start with this, but I think by the time the issues with the website become straightened out, we'll be in good shape," he said.

New Hampshire opted not to create its own online insurance market under the law, but Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan's administration has moved to have the state partner with the federal government to manage health plans and provide consumer assistance. Republicans blocked the state Insurance Department from accepting the $5 million grant, however, so the funding was delayed until the New Hampshire Health Plan came forward.

Some states that are also in partnerships with the federal government have launched websites and marketing campaigns, while others are closer to New Hampshire's experience.

The Arkansas Health Connector website is packed with resources for residents, but lawmakers rejected a $4.5 million advertising contract that would have used federal funds to air ads on television, radio and other platforms.

In Illinois, a major social media campaign aimed at uninsured healthy young adults got underway Oct. 1 but in a muted form given the technical problems with the federal website, and paid advertising is on hold. For now, a small team of social media experts is monitoring online chatter and answering questions of Facebook from discouraged consumers.

Delaware has launched both a website and marketing campaign, but by mid-October, only about half the people hired as marketplace guides had been certified. West Virginia also has a website, and an advocacy group has trained hundreds of people and helped fund outreach efforts by nonprofit groups. The state did not apply for millions of dollars in federal consumer education grants, however, and the governor's policy director has said state officials will monitor the situation and assess where there are shortfalls in communication before requesting any more resources.

Iowa has earmarked about $900,000 of its $2.6 million education and outreach grant for a media campaign but because it only recently got federal approval to use the money, the campaign likely won't launch until January, said Insurance Commissioner Nick Gerhart. He said the state isn't particularly frustrated by that timeline given the issues with the federal site.

"Give it a couple weeks at least," he said. "If we were in a full-blown education campaign that included advertising and things of that nature, I'm not sure that would have made a lot of sense."

Aaron Coleman, a consultant hired by the New Hampshire Health Plan, said consumer groups already have done a lot of groundwork in the state, and thanks to funding from the HNH Foundation, the state is starting its outreach and education efforts with a detailed analysis of the state's uninsured residents and the resources available to help them.

"(The delay) did give us a little time to turn those dials a bit and figure out exactly where the most efficient use of resources would be," he said. "That could've happened a year ago, too, so it's not to say it's a good thing. But having some time to finely tune our deployment strategy has been helpful."


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