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California Is Spending Millions To Advertise ACA To Latinos, But Will It Work?


As we just heard, there will be less time in most states to sign up for health care insurance on the exchanges. There will also be less advertising to let people know about open enrollment on the exchanges. That's because the Trump administration slashed the $100 million budget that paid for outreach about the Affordable Care Act by 90 percent. California is trying to make up for those cuts by advertising heavily with its own money with a focus on reaching Latino consumers. But as KQED's April Dembosky reports, that message can be a tough sell.

APRIL DEMBOSKY, BYLINE: The way human brains are wired, it just doesn't make sense to us to buy something now that we may not need for years into the future.

CHRISTOPHER GRAVES: Health insurance has to be the toughest thing on Earth to sell.

DEMBOSKY: Christopher Graves runs the behavioral science center at the Ogilvy advertising agency.

GRAVES: Especially if you're trying to sell it to somebody who's young, healthy and has not had some catastrophe health-wise.

DEMBOSKY: That would be most Latinos in California, and that's why they're a primary target of the state's marketing and outreach strategy.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

DEMBOSKY: Latinos represent 38 percent of the marketplace's potential customer base but 30 percent of people who actually enroll. The more healthy Latinos sign up for insurance, the more their premiums help balance the costs of older, sicker Californians.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

DEMBOSKY: But the Trump administration has made the already difficult task of selling a product people don't want to think about even harder.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It's over for Obamacare.

Obamacare is exploding.

Let Obamacare implode.

DEMBOSKY: California plans to invest $111 million to counteract the negative press from the feds, and it'll spend 30 percent of its media buy on Spanish-language ads. But in terms of the creative message, California is on the defensive.

LIZELDA LOPEZ: Even if they're hearing, well, you know, the Affordable Care Act is going away, we're saying, no, no, not yet. Not yet. We're still here.

DEMBOSKY: Lizelda Lopez helps direct Latino outreach at Covered California, the state marketplace.

LOPEZ: We are open for business.

DEMBOSKY: And that's this year's mantra.

LOPEZ: We. are here. We're still here. We are still here.

DEMBOSKY: But market researcher Carlos Santiago says the message could be too simple.

CARLOS SANTIAGO: To convince someone that was uninsured to get it for the first time - obviously, that message is not going to work, especially not this year.

DEMBOSKY: Plus, the belief that illness won't happen to you, Santiago says this is especially entrenched in Latino culture.

SANTIAGO: Latinos are extremely, extremely positive and overly optimistic.

DEMBOSKY: That's one reason he says Latinos have higher rates of going uninsured.

SANTIAGO: We don't need to worry so much about today. Things will be OK. And, obviously, when it comes to insurance, that's not exactly what it's all about.

DEMBOSKY: On that front, Covered California has some more dramatic ads with ambulances and overturned skateboards. It also plans to push a series of videos on social media aimed at Latino women.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

DEMBOSKY: In this one, a young woman shows pictures from her wedding day as she talks about suddenly finding out she needed a heart transplant. Without her health plan from Covered California, the surgery would have cost $1.5 million.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

DEMBOSKY: Carlos Santiago says the personal story of someone other Latinos can relate to is good. But he and Ogilvy's Christopher Graves say if the message is too scary, it could backfire.

GRAVES: People stopped taking action. They basically become paralyzed by how overwhelming it is.

DEMBOSKY: This year, more than ever, finding the perfect balance will be critical. For NPR News, I'm April Dembosky.

MARTIN: This story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, KQED and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

April Dembosky