Some 10 million Hispanics stand to gain health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, and the Spanish-language media network Univision is positioning itself as a direct path to this potentially lucrative market.
WellPoint and other Blues insurers in six states including Florida have signed deals with Univision for undisclosed sums to be the exclusive health insurance sponsor of the network’s Peabody-award winning health initiative, Salud Es Vida, which means Health Is Life.
The deals include a special plan-sponsored Univision website that will be able to connect Hispanics with coverage on the online markets, or exchanges, that will serve individuals beginning in October. But it’s a path that could take a detour around some competitors who are offering plans: Because of a little-known rule proposed by the administration in June, customers will be able to buy their subsidized Obamacare insurance directly from the insurer.
The rule allows a customer to be sent briefly to a special section of the federal or state-run marketplaces only to see if their income qualifies them for subsidized coverage, and then they can go right back to the WellPoint or Blues site to buy their coverage. These customers may not necessarily see the other options for insurance available on the exchange, and the other plans may cost less or include a wider provider network.
WellPoint, which owns for-profit Blues plans in 14 states, recently bought into the Univision partnerships in California, New York, Colorado and Georgia. Two nonprofit plans have also signed Univision partnerships: Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, and Florida Blue. Additional carriers are expected to sign deals in other states as the industry ramps up for Obamacare open enrollment that begins Oct. 1.
Steve Mandala, Univision’s executive vice president of sales and marketing, says that any insurer material on the plan-sponsored sites will be clearly labeled as advertisements or sponsored content and will not impact the editorial independence of Univision’s news coverage.
He adds that Univision is also working on arrangements with other insurers to sponsor additional ACA content outside of their hallmark Salud Es Vida campaign, and he expects visitors to the WellPoint-sponsored Health Insurance Center will also be looking elsewhere for insurance information. A fact sheet released by Univision following Kaiser Health News’ questions on this story says the sites will also link to the government sites such as, healthcare.gov and coveredca.com.
But, Mandala adds, “We are a for-profit business, and we feel we have every opportunity here to offer any insurer” advertising packages.
The deals are one of the most concrete ways to date that insurers have invested in the marketing of Obamacare, but they also could skirt a key principle of the law: that it should foster insurer competition and consumer choice.
“The initial concept that we had for the Univision health insurance center is for it to feel as though you’re walking into a Florida Blue retail center,” says Steve Snell, vice president of enterprise marketing for Florida Blue. “Our goal first and foremost is awareness. A lot of folks who are currently uninsured may never have signed up for insurance before.”
The site will have basic information about how health insurance works, and will also have a “shop our plans” section that will allow consumers to toggle directly over to a Florida Blue site in Spanish, where they can purchase coverage.
Over the past year, Florida Blue has doubled its spending on media targeted to Hispanics, a demographic that Snell says is crucial to their membership and growth objectives. The Univision partnership is a key part of their outreach. During prime time hours, Univision gets nearly three-quarters of the Spanish-language television audience. In one week in July, it beat out all other networks for viewers under age 50 — leading the network to adopt the tagline “ Número Uno is the new Number One.”
Hispanics tend to be younger than the general population, so they are just the sort of consumers that insurers (and the Obama administration) hope will sign up. Because young, healthy people need fewer medical services, insurance companies can use their premiums to balance the costs of care for older or sicker patients.
“If I were Health Med or Kaiser Permanente or any of the other health plans, I might think, ‘Wow, we just got out-maneuvered,’ ” says Daniel Zingale of the California Endowment, a Los Angeles-based foundation that has given Univision $20 million for a separate ACA campaign, in reference to the WellPoint partnership in California.
Consumer advocates had a mixed reaction to the rule and the Univision deals.
“We want the plans to compete by being the best value for the consumers, not by capturing that consumer early in the process and preventing them from seeing what their options are,” says Lynn Quincy, a senior policy analyst at Consumers Union.
But the challenge to sign qualified people up for insurance is a daunting one, other advocates say.
“We really do need any boot on the ground. At the end of the day, the government will never have the money to have the kind of media campaign we need, so we need the carriers to get involved,” says Elisabeth Benjamin, an advocate at the Community Service Society of New York. “My hat’s off to WellPoint; it’s very clever.”
Much of Univision’s digital health content is created and owned by a privately-held Hispanic health information and advertising company called HolaDoctor, which is managing Univision’s relationships with health insurers. On HolaDoctor’s corporate website, the company promised insurers that the new partnerships will “leverage the Univision brand to position your health plan as the preferred health insurance company for Hispanics in your service area.” That section of the website was taken down shortly after KHN interviewed HolaDoctor Executive Vice President Dirk Schroeder.
Lisa Rubino, a senior vice president at Molina Healthcare Inc., which is also offering health plans on the California and Florida exchanges, says she’s not overly concerned about other plans having exclusive sponsorship arrangements with Univision.
Enrolling Hispanics in coverage is about “more than just a media position,” says Rubino. The company’s strategy is to focus on community partners such as churches, schools, markets and physicians — trusted advisers that Hispanics generally go to for help.
“When it comes down to actually enrolling, there are relationships that have been established for years beyond WellPoint and Florida Blue,” Rubino says.
Consumer Union’s Quincy says that despite her concerns, partnerships between insurers and other private companies like Univision may be inevitable. “Someone got into the insurance market and yelled, ‘Free money! New demand!’ They’re all trying to figure out how to be the place where people spend their tax credit dollars,” she says.
Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.