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Life Health > Health Insurance

On the Third Hand: Flashlights

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Right now, it looks as if Hurricane Joaquin could make my local radio weather reports (not to mention the condition of my cellar) a lot more interesting Monday and Tuesday next week.

Of course, state and federal rules put tough restrictions on what kinds of coupons, hats, t-shirts, mugs or other items insurance markets can use to get prospects’ attention.

The Medicare Advantage and Medicare Part D prescription drug programs and the public exchange system have strict rules on the “nominal gifts” used in promotional activities. America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) notes in a Medicare marketing educational guide that the maximum value of a gift must be $15 or less; that the combined value of gifts provided to one individual must be $15 or less; and the marketers must try to limit the total value of the gifts any one individual receives in a year to $50 or less.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) forbids agents and Web brokers from using “rebates and giveaways” to attract qualified health plan (QHP) buyers.

Here’s a suggestion: Create a list of emergency supplies that federal disaster preparedness officials want Americans to have. Exempt the supplies that are clearly mainly for emergency use from federal health program marketing promotional item restrictions. Let health carriers, agents, brokers and other marketers have their own marketing budgets set the caps on the value of disaster-prep-related novelty items.

If, for example, a Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) public exchange, a PPACA public exchange “enrollment facilitator,” a PPACA exchange-registered agent, or a Web broker wants to use flashlights, first-aid kits, whistles, “blankets in a pouch,” or similar items to reel in business, then let it put a sample of the giveaway in a cardboard box. Let the box of disaster-prep novelty items be all the documentation the marketer needs to show government auditors that its giveaways were fine.

On the one hand, the reality is that consumers will probably end up using the novelty items for non-emergency purposes. Big health program marketing giveaway efforts could also crowd out sales of some types of emergency supplies through ordinary retailers. If the government and retailers see giveaways doing serious damage to retail sales of flashlights and the like, everyone involved needs to reconvene to figure out ways to keep the emergency supplies on retail store shelves.

But, on the other hand, I saw firsthand after Sandy hit the New York in 2012 how amazingly useful flashlights, batteries and battery-operated radios can be when a storm knocks the power out. I found myself walking door to door, to hole-in-the-wall shops that I’d never noticed before, trying to scrounge up flashlights and batteries for people who had none. When I found myself down to schlepping “only” five flashlights, I felt nervous.

The lesson I learned from Sandy is: There’s no such thing as having too many flashlights around. To have any hope of having a flashlight on your keychain when you really need it, you have to have about 20 flashlights lying around in your home gathering dust on ordinary days.

See also: On the Third Hand: Emergencies

Given how much U.S. gross domestic product flows through the health care system, and where the ads on billboards and in print publications come from, it seems as if drug companies, hospital companies and health insurers have the biggest marketing budgets around. If there’s some way to use that marketing budget pressure to channel disaster-prep supplies into people’s homes, it seems as if we ought to encourage that.

See also: Sandy knocks out 2 of lower Manhattan’s 3 hospitals

On the third hand, maybe consumers who found themselves using an XYZ Health Insurance Company Inc. keychain flashlight to survive the aftermath of a devastating hurricane would spend the rest of their lives feeling an irrational devotion to XYZ Health Insurance Company. They might prefer bad, expensive health coverage, with a lousy provider network from XYZ, to great, cheap coverage from an insurer that didn’t get them through a hurricane.

But, on the fourth hand, would that be such a bad thing? Low premiums, low out-of-pocket costs, good provider networks and good customer service are great, but so is having a flashlight and a can opener on your keychain when you really, really need a flashlight and a can opener.


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