DENVER (AP) -- They're at festivals, libraries, churches and health fairs. They're on TV and radio, in English and Spanish. They're not trying to sell you health insurance. They're just trying to help you buy it.
Colorado is spending heavily to promote the launch of its new health insurance exchange, called Connect For Health Colorado, a shopping marketplace for people who must have health insurance by Jan. 1 or face federal fines.
Colorado was one of the first to start organizing its exchange two years ago, and it's among the heaviest spenders for marketing and advertising it to more than 700,000 Coloradans who don't have health insurance.
According to data compiled The Associated Press from federal and state sources, Colorado is spending more than $21 million in public money to market Connect For Health Colorado. That puts the state eighth nationally on spending to promote new opportunities for health insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act.
The money, which works out to about $4 per Colorado resident, comes from federal grants. More than $1 million has gone to an early-summer marketing campaign, including television ads, to promote the new way to shop for health insurance.
TV commercials show people being magically transformed into champions. One minute they're shopping for health insurance on a computer, the next they're winning at a horse race, in a casino or at the World Series with champagne corks flying. The slogan: "When health insurance companies compete, the only winner is you."
Myung Oak Kim, director of communications and outreach for Connect For Health Colorado, said the campaign is just introducing itself to Coloradans and will increase outreach as Oct. 1 approaches.
"We are introducing a new service, a new way for people to get health insurance. And when you are introducing a new service, it requires an aggressive education campaign," Kim said.
One of the main strategies is to set up one-on-one conversations about how the exchange will work. Connect For Health Colorado has sent speakers to doctors' groups and jobs centers, and it gave out $17 million to 58 groups across the state to provide in-person assistance over the next 18 months.
One of those on-the-ground sales agents is Salud Family Health Centers in Fort Lupton, which runs nine clinics in six northeastern Colorado counties. Salud saw 76,000 patients last year and is using its $309,500 grant from Connect For Health Colorado to hire six full-time employees to tell patients about the exchange.
"There's a lot of community members who simply don't know what it means for them," said Jennifer Morse, Salud's vice president for development.
Salud has also received a federal grant of $380,000 to promote the Affordable Care Act more broadly, talking up not just the exchange but also expanded Medicaid eligibility and other health insurance options. Morse said new employees are going to farmers markets, festivals, even pet-adoption festivals to seek individuals who might not understand the exchange or the federal health care changes.
"I think it's going to come down to one-on-one outreach," Morse said. "If you're purchasing insurance for your family, that's a very unique, individual decision. Everyone knows what their own needs are. Because it's so new, it's going to take more guiding individuals through the new options."
However, some critics question how Colorado is marketing its new exchange. The advertising campaign has a friendly but vague vibe, and one Republican appointee to the exchange board said he's not sold on how Colorado is promoting its exchange.
Dr. Michael Fallon said the ads seem to be aimed at people already interested in health insurance.
"I'm not sure we need to be going on the soft sell," said Fallon, an emergency medicine physician. "We're going with a, 'Gosh, we'd love your business, come shop with us' approach. They're not saying, 'Oh by the way, you have to shop with us, if you don't you'll pay a fine and we're the only place you can buy subsidized insurance.'"
Kim said the marketing approach could change as Colorado approaches the Oct. 1 launch of the exchange and next year's deadline for individuals to acquire health insurance.
"We are looking at many different ways of doing education," she said.
Kristen Wyatt can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/APkristenwyatt
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