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When the State Fair opens on Thursday, the usual diversions will undoubtedly be foremost on visitors’ minds. But the more than one million people expected to attend the annual gathering will also be targeted with marketing efforts surrounding the looming rollout of the state’s new health insurance marketplace, known as MNsure.

Battle lines drawn over MNsure rollout

Twila Brase


“The exchange is the way that Obamacare and all of its controls and all of its privacy invasions and federal oversight is imposed,” says Twila Brase, Citizens’ Council for Health Freedom. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

State Fair marks start of marketing campaigns for and against exchange

When the State Fair opens on Thursday, the usual diversions — pronto pups, carnival games, the Miracle of Birth Center — will undoubtedly be foremost on visitors’ minds.

But the more than one million people expected to attend the annual gathering will also be targeted with marketing efforts surrounding the looming rollout of the state’s new health insurance marketplace, known as MNsure. Enrollment in the state-run exchange, which is expected to eventually provide coverage to 1.3 million individuals, is slated to begin October 1.

Opponents of the Affordable Care Act got off the first volley. They’ve purchased a billboard near the fairgrounds with this message: “Why can’t I choose my OWN doctor?”  It directs viewers to the website refuseMNsure.com.

The billboard was purchased by the Citizens’ Council for Health Freedom (CCHF), a nonprofit advocacy group that took in nearly $300,000 in contributions in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available. Twila Brase, the group’s president, says that the organization won’t have a booth at the State Fair, but is working on other plans to communicate with visitors.

“We’re considering several things which I cannot converse about,” Brase said. “The billboard is not the end.”

CCHF’s primary goal is to convince people not to seek insurance through the exchange, which Brase refers to as an “Obamacare implementation center.” “The exchange is the way that Obamacare and all of its controls and all of its privacy invasions and federal oversight is imposed,” Brase said. “Without the exchanges, Obamacare will fail. For those who do not want a national takeover of our health care system, they should not want the exchange.”

Brase is also spreading her message through a nationally syndicated one-minute radio program. The “Health Freedom Broadcast” is heard on more than 100 radio stations nationwide, according to CCHF. Four stations in Minnesota air the segment, including The Patriot (AM-1280) in the Twin Cities market. Recent topics have included “The truth about California’s ACA premiums” and “Obamacare picks winners and losers.”

‘Obamacare draft cards’

Brase’s group is part of efforts across the country to undermine the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Success of the national health care law depends on large numbers of young, healthy people signing up for insurance through the exchanges. That will counterbalance the cost of providing coverage to people with high medical needs and keep premiums at a reasonable level. But if those younger people fail to purchase coverage and opt instead to incur a fine (just $95 in 2014), it will throw the economics of the system out of whack.

The most notorious anti-ACA effort is being led by FreedomWorks, the Tea Party-aligned group that’s been at the forefront of Obamacare opposition. The group is steering a national effort to convince young people not to sign up for health care through the exchanges. They’re asking them to burn their “Obamacare draft cards” and upload the videos to YouTube. Of course, there’s no such thing as an Obamacare draft card. But the group is hoping to create a symbol of resistance to the federal health care law.

No such rallies, however, have so far been planned for Minnesota. “We have not directly targeted Minnesota,” said Trey Grover, a spokesman for the group.

Another conservative advocacy group, Americans for Prosperity (AFP), has held protests in Florida and Georgia in recent days targeting Enroll America, a nonprofit group that’s seeking to maximize enrollment in the exchanges.  AFP claims that the group is actually a front for the insurance industry and the Obama administration.

The conservative advocacy group’s Minnesota chapter has no protests planned locally. “We’re going to be rolling out in more states shortly,” said Christopher Neefus, a spokesman for the group.  But it’s encouraging supporters to sign a petition protesting the use of Internal Revenue Service data to gauge eligibility for subsidies on insurance plans offered through the exchanges.

$5 million marketing campaign

So far MNsure has been going about its preparations for the October 1 rollout quietly. But that’s about to change dramatically. Beginning with the State Fair, the insurance exchange will be conducting a $5 million marketing campaign to promote the new state-run marketplace.

That includes $1.1 million in television ads, $500,000 in radio spots, and $800,000 in online ads. The mix is also expected to include billboards, bus ads and digital signs.

April Todd-Malmlov, MNsure’s executive director, says part of the purpose is to counteract misleading claims by opponents of the federal health care law. By way of example, she notes the claim that individuals won’t be able to choose their doctor (the focus of the CCHF billboard) is false.

“We’re not a health insurer. What we’re doing is bringing people more options,” Todd-Malmlov said. “Saying that you’re not going to be able to see your doctor is really, I think, inflammatory and inaccurate.”

At a July meeting of MNsure’s board of directors, Todd-Malmlov indicated that they’ve also discussed using local celebrities in the marketing effort. But most details of the effort are being kept under wraps. The state has sought an exemption from disclosure requirements in order to keep the marketing materials private until the campaign has launched.

Todd-Malmlov argues that secrecy is required to keep opponents of the exchange from using the materials for misleading or fraudulent purposes. “We want to make sure that all of the themes and the taglines and the logos that we’re using are out when we’re ready for them to be out,” she said. “We want to get as many people enrolled as possible, so you want to have your marketing be as effective as possible.”

Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, wrote a letter last month opposing MNsure’s request to keep the materials secret. “It is deeply concerning that MNsure has sought extraordinary protection for such an ordinary document,” the letter states. “Their actions should make legislators and the public wonder why MNsure views itself as deserving of special privileges not bestowed on any other state agency, and whether MNsure believes itself to be above accountability and oversight.”

The Minnesota Department of Administration has 45 days to rule on whether the data privacy request will be granted. That period happens to expire on August 22, the first day of the State Fair, when MNsure plans to go public with its marketing campaign. That means the question of whether the materials should be disclosed will be rendered moot.

“The State Fair is one way of us getting the messaging out to a broad audience,” Todd-Malmlov said. “We are lucky to have the State Fair in Minnesota. Very few states have something like that.”


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