(Bloomberg) — The day after Addie Wilson was quoted in a newspaper article complaining about her experience with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), her mobile phone rang while she was in the bathroom.
It was an employee from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) offering help.
“I was definitely surprised and kind of shocked,” said Wilson, 27, who lives in Fairmont, W.Va.
She’s not the only one getting such a call.
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Facing an onslaught of media attention to PPACA’s rough debut and sustained attacks by Republicans, the Obama administration is borrowing a corporate tactic and tracking down consumers who air their grievances in news reports or on social media. The goal: Get a case worker in touch within 24 hours to resolve the issue.
That quick response can contain damage from negative stories before it’s amplified on the Internet, cable television and traditional media, said Eric Dezenhall, a crisis- communications consultant.
“They do not want a motivated adversary to suddenly become a rock star attacking them at every turn,” said Dezenhall, a communications aide in the Reagan White House who has since consulted for companies. “They’re trying to defuse hostilities by reaching out to those who have a platform.”
Since Jan. 1, about 150 consumers have been identified either through traditional media or the federal insurance exchange’s social media channels, including @HealthCaregov on Twitter and the HealthCare.gov page on Facebook, said Aaron Albright, a spokesman for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), the HHS agency that runs the federal exchange.
While that’s only a small portion of the approximately 55,000 cases referred to the agency’s casework staff between Oct. 1 and Jan. 31, the administration’s damage-control effort mirrors a shift by businesses to a more rapid response when customers publicly protest.
“The increasing ability for disgruntled parties to do material damage to a company” is “a source of borderline hysteria in boardrooms,” Dezenhall said.
A textbook example of how a grievance can become an online sensation is a 2009 video, “United Breaks Guitars,” that Canadian musician Dave Carroll posted on Google Inc.’s YouTube chronicling his effort to get United Airlines to repair a guitar he says baggage handlers broke. It has been viewed 13.8 million times.
Another is the recent outcry over AOL Inc.’s Tim Armstrong after an employee’s wife wrote an online article criticizing the chief executive officer for blaming retirement-benefit cuts on the medical costs of two workers’ “distressed babies.”
While it was “a novelty two or three years ago” for companies to respond to individual consumer gripes aired on social media, more businesses are doing so now, said David Armano, global strategy director for Edelman Digital.
The administration is joining that trend in dealing with the flood of complaints about PPACA.
Addie Wilson, who was featured in a Feb. 3 Washington Post article, had been trying for more than a month to resolve a defect on the federal website that prevented her from receiving the subsidy to which she says she’s entitled to buy insurance.
Wilson, who earns $22,000 a year working for a private social service agency that ended its employee coverage on Dec. 31, was discharged from a hospital in late December and told she would need gall bladder surgery in January.