DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The television ads show a series of medical mishaps: a man kicking the wrong leg in a reflex check, a urine sample bottle that won’t open for a frustrated patient and a blood pressure cuff letting out a strange noise when the doctor presses the plastic bulb.
After each scene, a narrator says: “Things don’t always work like they’re supposed to. Good thing the government exchange website isn’t the only place to buy health insurance.”
Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield, a Des Moines, Iowa, company not participating in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) exchange program in 2014, launched the ads recently in Iowa and South Dakota. The ads poke fun at the technical problems that have plagued the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) HealthCare.gov exchange enrollment website.
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Wellmark is trying to use the ads to make sure consumers know they can buy insurance directly from the company rather than go through the federal government, spokeswoman Traci McBee said.
“They’re designed to get attention through humor,” McBee said. “That way [consumers] can hear the message that there’s more than one place to shop.”
While many insurers are running television spots at the moment promoting their products and often directing buyers to their own websites, this exact kind of messaging has not been seen in other states.
Elizabeth Wilner, vice president of Kantar Media, which tracks advertising, said that in general, she has seen more aggressive ads coming from small insurance outfits seeking to pick up business, while many bigger insurance companies have been careful to avoid directly knocking PPACA, perhaps opting for caution as they see how the law will unfold.
Wilner said the Wellmark ads were the most direct she had seen commenting on the federal insurance enrollment website.
“The Wellmark ads are the only ones we’ve seen so far that explicitly make fun of the federal website,” Wilner said.
Though Wellmark’s ad campaign appears unique, insurance brokers and companies in numerous states have tried to attract customers by creating websites that mimic those of the online health insurance exchanges created by the federal government or individual states. In some cases, including California, they have been hit with cease-and-desist orders.
Iowa Insurance Commissioner Nick Gerhart said his staff had reviewed the Wellmark ads and found nothing inappropriate. He said his focus was on efforts to deliberately mislead customers, like ads that falsely claim to be offering policies compliant with PPACA.
“Those are the ads that are going to hurt people the most,” Gerhart said.