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Open enrollment for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act doesn't start for another six weeks. But the insurance startup Oscar Health launched an ad campaign today aimed at getting young people to enroll. The company decided to increase its ad spending after the Trump administration announced it was slashing its advertising budget by 90 percent. NPR's Alison Kodjak has the story.
ALISON KODJAK, BYLINE: Oscar is plastering the New York subway system with posters urging people to get ready for open enrollment. One ad shows a pregnant woman holding her belly with a blue Band-Aid on it that says, we are covered. Oscar vice president Sara Rowghani says the company is stepping up in part because the government is pulling back.
SARA ROWGHANI: Particularly in this year of uncertainty, I think it's very important for us to be in market early and reassure customers, reassure, you know, the 22 million folks that are insured that it is really important to get covered.
KODJAK: Rowghani says the early message focuses on reminding people about open enrollment. The ads include the dates open enrollment starts and ends with the Oscar logo much less prominent.
ROWGHANI: We're really communicating this message of getting coverage. Get covered.
KODJAK: The company declined to say how much it's spending on the ads but did say it's a multimillion-dollar campaign. It'll run in six states where Oscar does business and be on TV, radio and in subways and on buses. But advertising from private insurers won't be able to match the power of the advertising by the federal government, says Lori Lodes, who ran the ACA outreach under the Obama administration.
LORI LODES: The reality is there's only so much that issuers, that advocates, that folks can do from the outside because the government is a trusted - historically has been a very trusted messenger.
KODJAK: Trump's Department of Health and Human Services says it's cutting the advertising budget for open enrollment from a hundred million dollars down to 10 million. And it will cut back on grants for navigators by about 40 percent. Those are the people who help customers sign up for a health plan. Agency officials say that most customers are already aware of the Affordable Care Act and that the outreach isn't as effective as when the law was new. The plan is to eliminate expensive television advertising and instead focus on email and text message outreach. Lodes says that's a bad idea.
LODES: Television not only was the No. 1 driver of enrollment, but it made all of those other channels of communication that much more effective.
KODJAK: And at a hearing earlier this month, several state governors said they too were worried about the cuts. Montana Governor Steve Bullock was one of them.
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STEVE BULLOCK: The idea that we'll cut 90 percent of the education dollars and 40 percent of the navigator dollars when what we need to do is draw these people in doesn't make sense.
KODJAK: Oscar is the first insurance company to step in and try to make up for the government's advertising cuts. Whether others join them and whether they're effective will only be clear when open enrollment ends next year. Alison Kodjak, NPR News, Washington.
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