Legendary lumberjack Paul Bunyan’s day job requires heavy lifting and hard work. But the new endeavor in which the mythical woodsman has been enlisted is far more challenging than felling tall timbers with an ax: getting Minnesotans revved up about buying health insurance and using the state’s new MNsure website to do so.

Minnesota is one of 16 states that opted to build a fully state-based health insurance exchange — the online comparison shopping marketplaces that are a cornerstone of the 2010 Affordable Care Act — with the remainder of states relying on the federal government to build or help build theirs. While the exchanges are slated to launch on Oct. 1, Bunyan and his buddy Babe the Blue Ox have already begun their new gig promoting MNsure.

The details of a marketing campaign that had been under wraps were released this week. Minnesotans traveling along westbound Interstate 94 between Minneapolis and St. Paul likely have already seen a billboard showing Bunyan, whose active Minnesota lifestyle humorously leads to accidental injuries, illustrating the campaign tagline “Land of 10,000 reasons to get health insurance.’’ TV, radio and other mass media spots are on the way.

The campaign has garnered mixed reviews on social media, but its light touch with a complicated, often daunting subject should be welcomed. The spots have the campy appeal of the Minnesota State Fair’s long-running ad campaign. They also drive home an important message as the ACA’s opponents decry it as a federal takeover of health care: The MNsure exchange was built by Minnesotans for Minnesotans.

The campaign’s highest-profile efforts are unfortunately light on some key information that will drive many consumers to use MNsure for 2014 coverage and beyond — namely, federal subsidies to help pay for monthly premiums that will be available to those who don’t get insurance through an employer and qualify financially for assistance. The spots also don’t emphasize that the competition between private insurers on MNsure may make plan prices and choices attractive to those on the individual market who don’t qualify for assistance.

Still, the campaign has already accomplished an important objective. It’s made a splash, with national news coverage of Bunyan as surprising insurance pitchman. Even the initial complaints from Bemidji officials about Bunyan’s “foolish” pratfalls are raising MNsure’s profile — a real concern when polls nationally indicate that awareness of the new state exchanges lags.

Bemidji officials’ complaints that the ads disrespect the Bunyan myth are overblown. The Minnesota State Lottery has long enlisted the state bird, the loon, to entice people to gamble. The plaid-shirted lumberjack is pushing a website with information about a potentially lifesaving product.

MNsure spokesman John Reich said this week that upcoming mass media ads will not “explicitly” mention the subsidies, partly for time and space limitations and because the initial effort is aimed at raising the exchange’s general awareness. A second phase will focus more on how to enroll. More-detailed marketing information about the subsidies will be available.

That’s encouraging. Many people who buy insurance on their own or who don’t get affordable coverage through an employer — a small segment of the health insurance market — may be unaware that they qualify for help buying insurance. Yet a new analysis from the respected Kaiser Family Foundation suggests that 48 percent of people currently buying coverage on their own will be eligible for the sliding-scale tax credits to offset premium costs.

Moreover, the “tax credits have the potential to cover a substantial portion of the premiums paid by current individual market enrollees,’’ according to the analysis. Kaiser calculated that families eligible for tax credits would receive an average subsidy of about $462 a month to help pay premiums. Other assistance may also be available to some to help with out-of-pocket costs.

The tax credits are available nationally for those with incomes between 100 percent and 400 percent of the federal poverty level. In Minnesota, those with incomes between zero and 200 percent of the federal poverty level will go into medical assistance or MinnesotaCare because of the way the state has customized its rollout of the ACA. MNsure will also determine eligibility for these programs.

The assistance available to consumers through exchanges will reduce the uninsured rate and, by extension, encourage those without coverage to take responsibility for their care costs instead of showing up in the emergency room for expensive, often uncompensated care.

While consumers who don’t want to use MNsure can still buy insurance elsewhere, the tax credits are available only through the exchanges. This assistance is a compelling reason to use MNsure — one that consumers should check out carefully now that they’ve heard the quirky pitch from two north-woods icons.


An editorial of the Star Tribune (Minneapolis). Follow the editorial board on Twitter | FacebookPinterest | Google+