The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

Business & Technology

June 13, 2014

Health campaign among nation's costliest

CHICAGO — President Barack Obama’s home state agreed to spend $33 million in federal money promoting his health care law, hiring a high-priced public relations firm for work that initially was mocked and spending far more per enrollee on television ads than any other large state.

After getting a late start and facing intense pressure to avoid more embarrassment for the much-maligned law, Illinois officials last summer inked the most lavish contract in the history of FleishmanHillard’s Chicago office. The goal was getting uninsured residents to sign up for coverage.

More than 90 people, including executives from the firm and its subcontractors, billed at least $270 an hour for salary and overhead during the first four months.

The hourly amount far exceeded the contracts other states signed for similar work. Colorado paid its ad agency $120 per hour, for example. In Connecticut, a similar contract had rates topping out at $175 an hour.

The Associated Press, using open records requests, obtained hundreds of pages of contracts, bills, plans and heavily redacted emails between the marketing team and state officials. Together, they raise questions about whether the state did enough to keep federal taxpayer costs under control.

The hourly rates are “absolutely excessive,” said Illinois Rep. Darlene Senger, a Naperville Republican who is running for Congress.

“That is more than you would pay a top surgeon,” Senger said. “They knew this had to be done years in advance, and they did everything last minute.”

The results were mixed for “Get Covered Illinois,” which the campaign was named after focus groups rejected the PR firm’s early proposal of “Wellinois” as too cheesy. More than 217,000 new enrollees signed up, meeting the cautious federal target but lagging far behind the state’s own goal of 337,000, according to an internal document obtained by the AP.

Failing at a state-run insurance exchange embraced by several other progressive states, Illinois officials had belatedly formed a partnership with the federal government by the spring of 2013. Up against the wall and with a generous federal grant, officials in the cash-strapped state constructed the deluxe contract to sell the idea of what pro-Republican political ads were attacking as “Obamacare.”

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