Filed Under:Health Insurance, Individual Health

Oregon exchange puts folk singers on TV

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Two local folk singers, strumming guitars and crooning about the virtues of Oregon, have become the first tool in a $20 million campaign to convince Oregon's uninsured to buy health insurance.

Musicians Laura Gibson and Matt Sheehy appear in ads that are now on heavy rotation in all of Oregon's television markets.

The ads are the beginning of an intensifying push to introduce the public to Cover Oregon, the state's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) exchange.

"These ads are what we like to call our 'hello' to Oregon," said Amy Fauver, chief communications officer for Cover Oregon. "It's really about building awareness of the name Cover Oregon and also generating a positive sentiment. We know that most people have not heard of Cover Oregon."

The Oregon Legislature created Cover Oregon, known officially as the Oregon Health Insurance Exchange, as a public corporation in 2011. It's currently funded primarily by hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants but is supposed to eventually be self-sufficient.

The introductory ads feature Gibson and Sheehy singing about Oregon's iconic landmarks, independent spirit and healthy lifestyle. The two ads now airing will soon be joined by a third featuring Portland-based hip-hop duo Lifesavas, Fauver said.

They hardly mention Cover Oregon nor explain what it is, instead trying to create a positive vibe associating the brand with Oregon's cultural identity. An educational campaign will follow next month to help people understand what it means for them, Fauver said.

Cover Oregon officials say website traffic surged six-fold to 10,424 visits after the ads began airing.

In addition to the ad campaign, the federal government is offering grants to community health centers that serve the poor to help them educate their patients. The state is also awarding outreach grants to local organizations that want to help get people to sign up for health coverage. More than 70 organizations applied for grants, and state officials are currently reviewing their materials, Fauver said.

Oregon has embraced PPACA and was one of the first states to agree to build an exchange. Cover Oregon expects to spend $20 million on advertising, public relations and community outreach, almost all of it in federal money. At $5.29 per resident, Oregon's advertising budget is seventh-highest in the country, according to records from all 50 states compiled by The Associated Press.

Nearly 600,000 people in Oregon are uninsured, 15 percent of the population. Starting Jan. 1, people making less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level — $23,550 a year for a family of four — will be eligible for the Oregon Health Plan, the state's Medicaid program. Anyone else who doesn't get insurance from an employer or Medicare will be able to purchase it through Cover Oregon, and people with low and moderate incomes will qualify for the federal subsidies.

State officials expect 320,000 people to get insurance through Cover Oregon next year, including some people who are currently uninsured and others who get already get health insurance on the individual market.

The success of Cover Oregon will depend on enrolling lots of young and healthy people. If only the sick sign up, critics warn that premiums will skyrocket and make it financially unsustainable.

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