Communicating Obamacare

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Posted At: December 3, 2013 7:33 a.m.
by Christi Rich

As November ends, we approach the two-month mark of the initial implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare. From its inception and signing in 2010, the ACA has caused much controversy within both major political parties. The initial kickoff of the ACA was disappointing to many, with technological issues plaguing the healthcare.gov website.

The ACA is 906 pages of legal and medical jargon that will ultimately affect the lives of every American citizen. Communication professionals working in the health care industry are charged with the immense task of learning the ins and outs of this piece of policy in order to educate a variety of audiences about the parts of this law that may be of utmost importance to them. The influence of health reform has affected almost every player in the health care industry, whether it may be a pharmaceutical company or a hospital system.obamacare

The ACA requires that all Americans buy health insurance plans through the Exchange. The core economic concept behind this requirement is that it will increase competition among health insurance plans, driving down premiums.

Everyone is affected

Leigh Fazzina, principal of health care-centric public relations consultancy Fazzina & Co. Communications Consulting Inc., has worked for 20 years developing communications strategies for various health care companies such as pharmaceuticals, medical device companies, health care associations and more.

Fazzina noted that everyone in health care is affected by the ACA, all in different ways. She described the following scenario of how some programs will be changed by health care reform.

More than 50 million Americans are currently uninsured, and many of these individuals have sought treatment at free medical clinics throughout the U.S. But, in theory, the ACA eliminates the need for free medical clinics, as all Americans will eventually have health insurance. Some patient assistance programs from which uninsured Americans have been getting help to obtain medicines either at discounted rates or for free will also no longer be in place due to the ACA.

Clients who initially may seem immune from these changes are ultimately affected. These new laws force health care communication professionals in all sectors to rethink their strategies.

“Before health care reform went into place, we didn’t have to take many of these things into consideration,” Fazzina said.

In contrast with Fazzina’s agency view of the ACA, Jim Bakken, director of media relations at The University of Alabama at Birmingham, works with the third largest public hospital in the country; Bakken comes from the health system perspective. He explained that his job working with the media has essentially stayed the same with the reform; no matter the topic, he would still be working closely with the media.

“I wouldn’t say the ACA changed my job at UAB,” Bakken said. “But it has certainly given us reform-related messages to communicate through the media.”

Clients rely on communications teams

From an agency background with Peritus PR and McNeely Pigott & Fox, Bakken explained that reform affected him more in this setting, as new and existing clients sought to promote aspects of health reform important to their constituents.

But in a health system setting, the “client” is the patient. Bakken and the leadership at UAB work with the new law to ensure the highest quality of care and possible experience. No matter the law’s parameters, this will always be the goal.

“The UAB Health System has been working and thinking about this potential development for so many years,” Bakken said. “I have the luxury of working with forward thinking leadership that anticipates and troubleshoots before something becomes an issue for patients.”

Fazzina’s priority is to become well-versed on the aspects of the new law, in order to create strategies relevant to her clients’ work.

“I can’t say with certainty that anyone is reading all 900 pages of the Affordable Care Act, but it is our responsibility to know how it will impact the companies we are representing and working with,” Fazzina said.

She explained that companies affected by the ACA are now placing an even more critical burden on their communications teams to stay up to speed with health care reform in the news. First thing each morning, Fazzina spends an hour or two reading up on the latest health care reform news.

Working with government officials

Last year, UAB ranked 22nd among public universities in research with $454 million in research expenditures. Also responsible for media relations regarding academia at UAB, Bakken balances communicating Health System messages with sharing work done by UAB researchers studying a variety of topics, one of which inevitably covers health care policy. One recent article describes the research of David Becker, Ph.D., that defined the positive effects for the state of Alabama had the government opted to expand Medicaid under the new law.

Inevitably, the leadership at UAB communicates with government leaders on a number of issues, as UAB is the largest single-site employer in the state, but there is a separation between government relations at UAB and Bakken’s responsibilities to promote studies that may or may not support an institutional perspective on a given issue. Bakken explained that his job in promoting research is not to further a political agenda, but rather highlight studies conducted by faculty members who work with academic freedom.

“The health system has been working and thinking about this [potential development] for so many years,” Bakken said. “I have the luxury of working with forward thinking leadership that anticipates and troubleshoots before something becomes a problem.”

New strategies?

Fazzina noted that new strategies and tactics with her clients have been key throughout the process of reform, especially in reaching the audience with social media tools.

“Consumers are more tech savvy than ever these days,” Fazzina said. “Using online social communications, such as Twitter, is really important with my clients.”

But for Bakken at UAB, media relations is a tried and true strategy when it comes to communicating health care reform. Bakken simply seeks to help the audiences understand what’s happening with health care reform as it relates to them and to UAB.

“Our team has been working with the leadership in the UAB Health System to communicate important information to the community, patients and stakeholders,” Bakken said.

Health care reform certainly isn’t going anywhere; it’s just a matter of what will happen next. Luckily for communications professionals, there are new opportunities in this industry with every stage of implementation of the ACA.

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