Obamacare Finally Got Some Promoters

Mergers and Acquisitions

Critics have maintained that the Obama Administration has not done enough to promote and educate Americans about the insurance exchanges that will open for enrollment in October as part of the sweeping changes the Affordable Care Act will bring to the American health care system.

As evidenced by the huge number of Americans who misunderstand the status of the reform bill, there is much work to be done: Approximately four in 10 people polled by the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation in April said they were unsure whether it was still on the books.

Opposition by Republicans has only further hampered the government’s efforts to sell the law’s benefits.

Several weeks ago, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius attempted to harness the National Football League to make Obamacare look cool. It is clear why the department targeted the NFL and other professional sports teams.

The benefits of using athletes and celebrities is that they appeal to young people, and the Obama Administration has calculated that approximately 2.6 million to 2.7 million young, cheap-to-insure young adults are needed to sign up for coverage on the online marketplaces in order to balance the cost of insuring older and sicker adults. But the politically divisive nature of the legislation prompted NFL officials to say no.

Walgreens (NYSE:WAG), the largest U.S. drugstore chain, and Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, which is made up of 38 state and local health plans, including 14 owned by WellPoint (NYSE:WLP), announced Wednesday that together they would set up an education website. Co-sponsored informative materials will also be distributed in Walgreen’s 8,000 nationwide stores. The campaign is aimed at educating consumers about the law and providing them with information on how to sign up for coverage.

While inarguably far less cool than a partnership with the NFL, the agreement is still a triumph of sorts for the administration. Insurers have been reluctant to take part in the exchanges because of pressure exerted by exchange operators to lower rates and the likelihood that the first wave of customers to take advantage of the exchanges will be newly insured and therefore very costly.

In fact, UnitedHealth Group (NYSE:UNH) has said it will offer coverage in just a dozen states’ insurance exchanges, a sign for-profit insurance providers see little gain from quickly entering the new online markets. Therefore, a positive endorsement from Blue Cross Blue Shield sends a reassuring message to consumers.

Another benefit for the administration is the sheer scope these companies have. Blue Cross includes plans that cover about 100 million people, while 120 million customers pass through Walgreen’s doors each year,the drugstore;s chief strategy officer, Brad Fluegel, told Bloomberg. He believes that Walgreen’s customers “are fairly representative of America.”

There’s a lot of confusion, a lot of questions, and it’ll take a tremendous collaborative effort to make sure people have the information they need to make informed choices,” Fluegel said in a press release. But the promotional materials distributed by Walgreens will not recommend any specific plans, and customers will not be able to enroll in stores.

The companies did not disclose the financial terms of the partnership.

There are only three months until people can begin signing up for health insurance coverage using either the federally run or state-run marketplaces, and officials are scrambling to have the marketplaces prepared in time and educate the public about the reform.

Last month a 24-hour U.S. hotline, 1-800-318-2596, was activated and a redesigned government website was launched as part of push to better educate Americans about the law that continues to mystify consumers. Together, the phone line and the website are the

public face of the new Internet marketplaces. The government has also announced programs totaling about $212 million to promote the law. That money includes grants to federally funded clinics to hire workers to help patients sign up for coverage.

“We have a robust plan to get the job done,” Sebelius told reporters in a conference call Wednesday.

Follow Meghan on Twitter @MFoley_WSCS

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