• Many still in dark about new insurance market
    By Peter Hirschfeld
    Vermont Press Bureau | September 26,2013
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    MONTPELIER — With its Oct. 1 launch date just days away, fewer than half of Vermonters have even heard of “Vermont Health Connect,” the new online insurance marketplace at which more than 100,000 residents will soon be required to purchase their health coverage.

    State officials, however, say a $6 million advertising blitz will improve public awareness in advance of next year’s enrollment deadline. And the same poll that exposes the lack of public knowledge about Vermont Health Connect, officials say, also spotlights consumers’ generally positive views toward the concept.

    Lindsay Tucker, deputy commissioner at the Department of Vermont Health Access, said the poll, commissioned by the state and conducted in late August, offers baseline data on consumer awareness prior to the recent launch of television, radio and print advertising campaigns.

    “We actually found that awareness is lower in some of the groups that will be using Vermont Health Connect,” Tucker said Wednesday. “And that is helpful information for us to have, because it allows us to concentrate to make sure we are reaching those populations.”

    The federal Affordable Care Act mandates an online insurance exchange in every state. The exchange is designed to simplify the market by providing an apples-to-apples comparison of competing insurance products, and improve access, by offering financial assistance to eligible consumers who purchase plans sold on the exchange.

    But Vermont is pursuing the exchange more vigorously than most states, and has passed legislation that will require individuals and business with 50 or fewer employees purchase their coverage from the exchange.

    The controversial mandate has spurred headlines in media outlets across the state since the legislation passed last year. But the ubiquity of the “exchange” in the Statehouse apparently hasn’t made it common knowledge outside Montpelier.

    The telephone survey of 1,009 Vermont residents between the ages of 18 and 64 found that 43 percent have ever “heard about” Vermont Health Connect. And only one in five residents knows that the name refers to the state’s new insurance marketplace.

    According to the poll, conducted by the Washington, D.C., research and communications firm PerryUndem, the lower-income residents most likely to benefit from federal subsidies available at Vermont Health Connect are also the least likely to know it exists.

    The poll spotlights regional differences in awareness as well; fewer than 40 percent of residents in Rutland, Bennington, Windham and Windsor counties have heard of Vermont Health Connect, compared to more than 50 percent in Chittenden County.

    Peter Sterling, director of the Vermont Campaign for Health Care Security, is among the 250 “navigators” with whom the state has contracted to spread awareness about Vermont Health Connect. Sterling, who spent his Wednesday manning a table loaded with educational literature about the exchange outside the DMV office in Montpelier, said he’s confident the state is on track to get the information to the people that need it.

    The exchange opens on Oct. 1, and plans sold there will begin taking effect Jan. 1. But people have until March 31 of 2014 to enroll. If they miss that deadline, they will have to go without insurance for the entirety of 2014.

    “I don’t think that April 1 is going to roll around and somebody is going to say, ‘Wait a second, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do,’” Sterling said. “People may choose not to enroll. But I’m pretty sure they’ll have the information they need to enroll if they choose to.”

    Vermont will spend about $2 million on the navigators, selected based on their ability to reach key demographics. Sterling said the effort to reach out to lower-income residents is unprecedented, and dwarfs what Vermont did in advance of the launch of Catamount Health.

    As for early numbers from the poll, Sterling said that’s to be expected.

    “It’s a completely unrealistic expectation to think you can do outreach for a couple months and expect people to have an incredibly high level of awareness,” Sterling said. “It just takes time. And what the state is doing right now is so unique that I’m confident people are going to get the information.”

    When people get information about what Vermont Health Connect is, according to the results of the survey, they tend to express an interest in using it. The poll found that 60 percent of respondents are “very” or “somewhat” interested in using Vermont Health Connect “to get insurance if they needed it.”

    The Department of Vermont Health Access will commission another poll in the near future, to gauge the success of the state’s outreach efforts.

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