Private insurers step in to fill void of open enrollment advertising

Open enrollment ad screengrab
During the Obama administration, ads like this one touting the affordability of ACA exchange plans were common. (www.youtube.com/user/HealthCareGov)

During the 2017 open enrollment period, private insurers have stepped up their advertising efforts to compensate for the federal government pulling back.

The dearth of advertising on the government’s part isn’t unexpected, considering the Trump administration announced earlier this year that it would cut its open enrollment ad budget by 90%. What may be surprising, though, is that the volume of TV ads during the first 37 days of open enrollment is up 51% compared to the same time period last year, according to new research from the Wesleyan Media Project.

If advertising continues at the same pace as it has in the first 37 days of open enrollment, the total amount of ads could outpace last year—though not by that much, since this year the window to enroll is half as long. A similar trend is playing out in the Healthcare.gov sign-up figures reported by the government, which have outpaced the volume seen at the same time last year but are still projected to come up short overall given the truncated enrollment season.

According to the report, private health insurers are primarily responsible for the sharp increase in ads seen so far this year. Notably, though, none of the ads from private sponsors that aired more than 500 times this enrollment season mentioned Healthcare.gov—except one that advised consumers to go directly to an insurer’s portal instead of the federal website.

RELATED: Insurers, Obama tout ACA open enrollment

As for the federal government, it hasn’t aired a single TV ad about Healthcare.gov during this open enrollment period—a sharp contrast from the average of about 57,444 that it ran each year since the first sign-up season.

“Insurance company advertising is not a replacement for federal advertising, which in the past drove enrollees explicitly to the Healthcare.gov,” said Erika Franklin Fowler, Ph.D., co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project. But seeing more ads in a shorter amount of time could help encourage enrollment generally, she added.

But while the government has curtailed Affordable Care Act ads, it it nearly doubled the number of Medicare ads compared to last year, which could be a reflection of the Trump administration’s Medicare Advantage-friendly stance.

Government ads for the Children’s Health Insurance Program also increased year over year, though the numbers of ads for CHIP aired during 2016 and 2017 are down considerably compared to the first two open enrollment periods. CHIP’s future has been uncertain since Congress let federal funding for the program expire—though a year-end spending bill just introduced by the House would reauthorize CHIP for five years.

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