U.S. Fine-Tunes Messaging for Home Stretch of Obamacare Sign-Ups

Facing an end-of-the-month deadline, the U.S. government is increasing efforts to enroll millions more Americans into Obamacare, including appeals from President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle.

The Obama administration also is developing a strategy to communicate to Americans the penalty for going without insurance after March 31. People without insurance face fines of as much as 1 percent of their income, a penalty that hasn’t been mentioned in the government’s advertising.

About 4 million Americans have so far signed up for private health plans under the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. As many as 3.5 million more have enrolled in Medicaid, according to Avalere Health, a Washington-based consulting firm. The administration’s success signing up more people in the last month of enrollment will have repercussions for insurers, who must set rates for 2015 by the end of May, and in congressional elections this November.

“We’re not going to be happy until we reach the overwhelming majority of people who’ve been uninsured,” Ron Pollack, the executive director of Families USA, a Washington-based consumer advocacy group allied with the White House, said in a phone interview. “There still continues to be a lack of information among a large portion of the uninsured about the new benefits that are available to them.”

The government has had particular trouble signing up Latinos and administration officials said Obama will focus on that community this month. He is scheduled to participate in a “town hall” event March 6 hosted by groups focusing on Latino enrollment, including the California Endowment and large Hispanic media organizations such as Univision and Telemundo, according to a statement today that the White House asked be attributed to a senior administration official.

California Enrollment

Only about 20 percent of Californians who have enrolled in Obamacare coverage are Latino, for example, even though they comprise about 57 percent of California’s uninsured population. They are important to the law’s success because of their growing political clout and because Latinos tend to be younger and healthier than uninsured Americans in general.

The Health and Human Services Department held enrollment events directed at Latino audiences in Dallas, Philadelphia, Chicago, Atlanta and Tampa, Florida, last week, and U.S. Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius plans to travel to Houston and Phoenix this week to encourage people to sign up.

Outreach Effort

“Outreach is occurring in every state in the nation with a particular emphasis on areas with the highest population of the uninsured, using a mix of grassroots activities and engaging with officials from the state, local, and community level and other groups to raise awareness, as well as television, radio, and digital advertising,” Joanne Peters, a spokeswoman for Sebelius’ agency, said in an e-mail.

The Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, seeks to provide access to health plans for the country’s estimated 48 million uninsured. The Congressional Budget Office projects that 6 million people will sign up for private plans offered through new government insurance websites by the March 31 enrollment deadline.

While U.S. officials are trying to develop advertising that will make more clear the penalty Americans face if they don’t carry insurance, Pollack said the government’s outreach should focus on financial assistance available to help pay insurance premiums. People with incomes from one to four times the poverty level -- as much as $94,000 for a family of four -- are eligible for discounted premiums on insurance exchanges.

“The most important piece of information that needs to be conveyed relates to the very large subsidies people can receive that will make all the difference in the world in making insurance affordable,” he said. “That needs be accentuated even further. There are still huge numbers of uninsured people who are unaware of these subsidies.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Wayne in Washington at awayne3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reg Gale at rgale5@bloomberg.net

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