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Health-Insurance Companies Go Warm and Fuzzy

Of the many problems that health-insurance companies face these days, the fact that their members frequently fear and loathe them probably ranks as one of the biggest. Of course, health plans such as UnitedHealth Group and WellPoint bear a significant amount of the blame for this state of affairs. Not only do many people remember their heavy-handed attempts at cost-control in the 1990s, the industry remains mired in a near-perpetual state of scandal thanks to continued controversies over claim denials, higher costs for individuals, after-the-fact coverage cancellations, and unsavory marketing practices.

I've argued elsewhere that the industry's business model appears to be fundamentally broken, and that the only solution will likely be for health plans to reinvent themselves as advocates for their members. Needless to say, this isn't likely to be an easy sell, and there's plenty of reason to doubt whether today's health-insurance giants can really pull off this kind of shift. (Ideally, their lumbering inaction would open up opportunities for smaller and more innovative health plans.)

Still, many of the biggest health-insurance outfits are starting to make an effort along these lines. A recent story in American Medical News -- which is published by the AMA, no particular friend of the industry -- outlines some of their approaches, which so far seem largely limited to marketing-driven PR campaign emphasizing "warmth, empathy and genuineness," or WEG. (The full version of the article requires a subscription, unfortunately.)

Humana began using its "Guidance when you need it most" slogan in 2002, after extensive research to find out what people really thought health plans did and what they wanted them to do, [company spokesman Tom] Noland said....More recently, Aetna's "We Want You to Know" follows a theme of helping patients cut through the complexity of the health system, while United pushes a role as an able assistant in its slogan, "Helping People Live Healthier Lives."

Cigna's new campaign, launched in July, takes a slightly different tactic. It directly references the impending elections and heightened debate over health care reform. "It's Time to Feel Better" offers the same messages of assistance and wellness as other campaigns, but also includes a component meant to show customers that the company is engaged in the health system debate.

The very fact that health plans like Humana have been pushing this line for more than five years suggests that it's had a limited upside at best. Worse, the campaigns may merely highlight the many shortcomings of insurers and managed-care companies, according to Northwestern University marketing professor Kent Grayson:
But even the best slogans, warm, empathetic and genuine, don't automatically draw trust. Grayson said companies that polish their messages without changing the way they do business get in trouble when the reality and the advertised idea clash. So plans face a risk if the public doesn't believe they are warmer and fuzzier, nor the partners they need to ensure better health.

"There's a saying, 'Nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising.' Everybody goes to the store and realizes it stinks," Grayson said.

Not that it's a terrific surprise, but the AMA's president-elect, Texas cardiologist J. James Rohack, goes so far as to liken the marketing effort to the tobacco industry's decades-long attempt to spiff up its image:
The tobacco industry for years used advertising as a mechanism to say, "Here's a product that's actually harmful to your health, but we're going to make you feel better about it."
Of course, the AMA isn't a great fan of health plans taking a more active interest in their members' health, largely because it sees them as a threat to the doctor-patient relationship. That's too bad, because there's plenty of evidence that doctors themselves could use a watchdog on occasion. On the other hand, I bet you'd be hard-pressed to find many individuals who'd want their insurance company to play that role.
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