Get Ready for the Obamacare Ad Blitz

Richard Drew/AP File Photo

Now that the website works, the administration needs people to enroll in health care plans.

If you think you've heard an awful lot about Obamacare over the past three years, you ain't seen nothing yet.

This year will see a massive surge in TV advertising about the law—first from its supporters, and then from its critics.

The Obama administration and its allies are set to spend tens of millions of dollars on advertising as well as in-person outreach, most of it targeting roughly 10 states where especially large numbers of people are uninsured. 

For the most part, these campaigns will encourage people to enroll, rather than trying to sell the law politically. Although Obamacare still polls poorly, supporters firmly believe the answer is to show that it's working—and that means getting people in the door.

The Health and Human Services Department has reportedly reserved at least $12 million worth of TV ad time for spots promoting the health care law and encouraging people to enroll. Outside groups will spend even more.

HHS didn't use much of its TV time in 2013, in part because it had always planned to focus most of its resources toward the end of the enrollment window, and also because it didn't want to direct people to an enrollment site that wasn't working. But now that HealthCare.gov is largely fixed, administration offiicials say they're ready to "ramp up" the enrollment campaign over the first quarter of this year.

Liberal advocacy groups such as Organizing for Action and Americans United for Change are already gathering positive anecdotes from people who have gained coverage, as part of a coordinated push to promote the law over the next three months. And Enroll America, an umbrella group with close ties to the White House that was formed solely to promote enrollment, has raised more than $27 million for advertising and grassroots outreach through March.

The administration will also have some help from the insurance industry. Individual insurers have already started advertising the specific products they're selling through the law's new marketplaces, and large plans have also contributed to Enroll America.

An administration official said the insurers' advertising drive is not only a reflection of the fact that they want new customers, but also a sign that the industry believes early problems with the enrollment process have been worked out. "They have a sense of confidence now that's being reflected in advertising," the official said during a recent briefing for reporters.

The White House and its allies will focus most of their money on a handful of markets, targeting places with large numbers of uninsured residents as well as uncooperative state governments.

Californians, for example, won't see much Enroll America advertising, because the state is spending its own money to promote its exchange. But states like Texas and Florida, with hard-line Republican governors who have resisted all things Obamacare, will see a deluge of outside influence.

The administration and its allies have millions of dollars to spend and not all that much time to spend it. Their ad campaigns will run through the end of March, the deadline to purchase coverage for this year. The biggest push will come close to the final deadline, when the administration expects a surge in enrollment.

The 2014 campaign season—and its advertising—will be heating up just a few months later. Republicans and conservatives are confident that the botched rollout of HealthCare.gov and the uproar over canceled insurance policies will make a potent attack against vulnerable Senate Democrats.

Americans for Prosperity, the conservative advocacy group tied to the wealthy Koch brothers, launched a multimillion-dollar round of anti-Obamacare ads just this week. The spots target three potentially vulnerable Democratic incumbents—Sens. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.

AFP alone spent some $16 million on anti-Obamacare ads in 2012, and there are no signs that conservatives and official Republican committees will focus on health care any less this year as they fight for control of the Senate. Landrieu, Hagan, Shaeheen and Sens. Mark Pryor, D-Ark. and Mark Begich, D-Alaska, are facing voters this year for the first time since voting for the health care law.

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