Exchange keeps marketing plans quiet

  • Article by: JACKIE CROSBY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 16, 2013 - 12:07 PM

MNsure officials say they fear the information could be misused by “nonaffiliated groups.”

The new state-run health insurance exchange wants to guard details of its marketing plan as closely as a firm on Madison Avenue.

The executive director of the MNsure exchange, April Todd-Malmlov, is asking the state for a temporary reprieve from having to reveal such things as “the tagline, colors, characters, images and related materials” until the marketing campaign is underway, according to filings released Wednesday.

MNsure officials argued that keeping such creative elements under wraps will protect public dollars and prevent fraud and exploitation of citizens by “nonaffiliated groups.”

“There is widespread misinformation regarding the Affordable Care Act, MNsure and health insurance exchanges being disseminated at this time and continuing into the next four months until enrollment begins,” MNsure officials wrote in a letter to the Minnesota Department of Administration. “Furthermore, MNsure has particular concerns that entities may seek to unlawfully charge consumers for information or enrollment that is provided at no cost through the exchange.”

Jane Kirtley, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s journalism school, said that the action was unjustified and that they fear that such an overly broad request could extend beyond the MNsure launch.

“That strikes me as a totally bogus concern that people could use it to spread misinformation,” said Kirtley, who teaches media ethics and law. “That’s the oldest dodge in the book to try to avoid complying with open records laws. The remedy — aside from whatever legal options might be out there — is to get accurate information out there, not to hide it from people.”

The state requires agencies to explain their “compelling need” for not making information public, even temporarily, under the Minnesota Data Practices Act.

Agencies also have to explain how making the data available to the public would render the program unworkable.

MNsure will begin enrolling individuals and small businesses in insurance plans on Oct. 1, and will launch a $9 million advertising blitz in mid-August. A big splash is planned for the Minnesota State Fair that will include games and other promotions. The campaign will eventually include television, radio and newspaper ads, as well as YouTube videos and well-stocked social media channels, such as Facebook and Twitter.

The state has awarded a yearlong contract worth about $670,000 to Minneapolis-based advertising agency BBDO Proximity. Officials at BBDO Proximity couldn’t be reached for comment.

In the dog-eat-dog world of advertising, such marketing campaigns are closely guarded secrets. The rules are different in government, Kirtley said.

“As a private company, you can play this any way you want,” she said. “Once you become a government contractor, you give up the ability to operate that way. That’s the price of doing business with a state entity.”

At a meeting of the MNsure executive board Wednesday, Todd-Malmlov said that other states have seen a rash of “dummy websites” that try to trick consumers into revealing private information. MNsure bought as many website URLs as it could to avoid that, and is ramping up staff to investigate fraud, she said.

Todd-Malmlov tiptoed around unveiling too many “creative details,” even after one board member prodded her about plans for the State Fair.

Todd-Malmlov offered a measured response. “There are,” she said, “conversations about what we can put on a stick.”

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