N.H. Obamacare enrollment more than doubles expectations

Last modified: 5/2/2014 12:13:54 AM
More than twice the expected number of New Hampshire residents enrolled in health insurance plans offered for the first time through the federal program known as Obamacare, according to new data released by federal officials yesterday.

Almost half of those 40,262 people enrolled in the last 45 days of the open enrollment period.

“We live in a deadline-driven society. People wait until the last minute,” said Karen Hicks, project manager for Covering New Hampshire, the federally funded public relations campaign for the program in the state.

Federal officials said they still cannot tell how many of the people who enrolled have paid their insurance premiums.

Even two months ago, when more than 21,000 people had enrolled, no one in the Covering New Hampshire office expected to see enrollment go near 40,000, Hicks said. The closest estimate in the office pool? 33,000.

“I would have said it was unrealistic,” especially given the late start, as Republicans in the Legislature maneuvered to block the enrollment campaign’s $5 million in federal funding for several months, and the bumpy rollout, as the federal website barely worked until December, she said.

Hicks is a seasoned political campaign operator who worked as U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s political director when Shaheen was governor and for the New Hampshire presidential primary campaigns of Howard Dean and Hillary Clinton.

This campaign – with the March 31 deadline for people to sign up for coverage – was similar to the build-up before all of those election days she’s worked, Hicks said.

“We had a very clear goal, a very clear deadline . . . and we had a target audience. The better we could identify them, spend our resources talking to them rather than to someone who has insurance already or just wouldn’t be interested, the better it worked. We had a multilayered communication campaign that borrowed both from state-of-the-art marketing and from political campaigns,” Hicks said.

That campaign meant first using data gathered in previous research and polls to find the people most likely to be uninsured, getting them to tell Covering New Hampshire what would be an effective message, then adapting the media strategy to fit that message.

The group redesigned its website and print materials after a round of focus groups “were super clear with us that it was all about the money,” Hicks said.

“They said, ‘We know why we should get covered. It’s a question of money.’ So we cut to the chase a lot more than we did originally,” she said.

The campaign made a chart showing the level of subsidies and tax credits available for different income levels, and put it on just about every piece of material they distributed.

Though the outreach efforts were more successful than anticipated, they drew in about half of the New Hampshire residents eligible for plans on the marketplace, and only about 31 percent of enrollees are under the age of 35.

And as the efforts next year aim to encourage the remaining 40,000 eligible people to sign up, it’s only going to be harder – but even more crucial – to attract young, healthy people, said Charlie Arlinghaus, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy and a critic of the law.

Many young people, whose low consumption of health care makes them crucial to the financial success of the law, may rather pay the fine and take a risk than pay the premiums, he said.

“I think supporters are probably happy 40,000 people signed up. But basically, they got a lot of people to sign up who under the law had to sign up, and they got a large financial contract to do it.”

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)

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