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Ads Aim To Change Image of HMOs

July 10, 1999

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Hoping to repair their battered image, HMOs are launching a $9 million ad campaign featuring doctors who swear their patients get excellent care.

The campaign begins Monday, just as the Senate starts considering legislation to impose new government mandates on health maintenance organizations and other managed care providers.

Organizers insist the ads are not aimed at influencing the debate in Congress, but rather convincing people that the HMO horror stories they’ve heard do not represent everyday reality.

``This is standing up for ourselves and saying, `Hey, we’ve got a good product that’s serving the consumer,‴ said Chip Khan, president of the Health Insurance Association of America, one of several industry groups that have come together under the Coalition for Affordable Quality Healthcare.

The coalition waged a similar ad campaign last year, comparing managed care with traditional insurance plans, suggesting that managed care was just as good but cheaper.

This year’s campaign is the first to use doctors to make the case, even though many physicians and their associations have protested loudly about managed care’s restrictions.

The five doctors featured in the ads talk about the strengths of managed care, including its emphasis on encouraging preventive care and helping patients properly manage their diseases.

``I think one of the strong points of managed care is not taking away care, but in fact giving the right care,″ a California doctor says in one ad. Viewers see feel-good images, including children playing and a doctor with a baby.

Each ad ends with the tag line: ``Today’s managed health care _ there’s a lot to feel good about.″

The coalition has already raised $9 million from its members but hopes to raise another $ 1 million to $3 million for the campaign, said Roger Bolton, an official of Aetna U.S. Healthcare and the coalition’s president.

He said the group plans to extend the campaign for at least one or two more years, possibly more.

Others involved in the issue are skeptical that the campaign is not intended to influence Congress as debate opens on legislation to give consumers and doctors more power in dealing with HMOs and other managed care plans.

``The timing speaks for itself,″ said Dr. Nancy Dickey of the American Medical Association, which is lobbying lawmakers on behalf of doctors.

But she also said there is nothing wrong with doctors talking about managed care’s benefits.

``There are a lot of doctors and some patients out there who really do like managed care,″ she said.

The HMO campaign is similar to one produced by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturing Association, a group of drug companies that has been running ads for six years touting the benefits of new medicines.

That drug campaign, which costs about $20 million a year, features patients and researchers talking about their positive experiences. The group says polling and focus groups have proved that the ads are quite effective.

But the HMO ads has more of an uphill climb, said Jack Trout, who runs an advertising and marketing firm in Greenwich, Conn.

``They’re out to change people’s minds, which is probably one of the most difficult things,″ he said, adding that most campaigns try to push people in a direction they are already headed.

The best strategy, he said, is to acknowledge the concerns up front and then try to attack them. Some of the HMO adds do just that.

``I think it’s taking a while for doctors to warm up to managed care,″ a doctor says in one ad. ``It’s a change and I think change is always frightening.″

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