• Shumlin defends Vt. Health Connect marketing costs
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     | October 17,2013
     

    MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin is defending the decision to spend as much as $2.8 million on marketing and outreach for the online health insurance marketplace at which more than 100,000 Vermonters will soon be required to purchase coverage.

    In an interview Wednesday night, Shumlin said the “reinvention” of the state’s health insurance market demands an outreach effort commensurate with the scope of the change.

    He said the $2.8 million contract inked by the state with the Washington, D.C., consulting firm GMMB — to supply the advertising, public relations and production of educational materials for Vermont Health Connect — is a key to the success of the $172 million endeavor.

    “Getting the education piece right is incredibly important,” Shumlin said.

    His administration has come under fire for several components of the contract with GMMB, notably the commissioning of an “earned media landscape report” in which the firm monitored the subject and “tone” of individual reporters and their stories.

    Shumlin, however, said understanding how best to disseminate information about Vermont Health Connect requires a baseline understanding of the media’s portrayal of the reform initiative.

    “It is (GMMB’s) job to have a baseline for what the job is and what the needs of the education effort are,” Shumlin said. “And the only way that you can do that is by talking to people and reading press reports and figuring out who is saying what. … So there is nothing surprising in any of that.”

    The first iteration of the state’s contract with GMMB authorized up to $669,000 in expenditures for everything from convening focus groups to test the Vermont Health Connect “brand” to designing the website’s logo.

    Two subsequent amendments — neither of which was put out to bid — brought total authorized expenditures to more than $2.8 million, and enlisted GMMB to perform an array of tasks, including the production of television ads, scripting of talking points, training of spokespeople and other outreach-related activities.

    Mark Larson, commissioner of Vermont Health Access, said that while the contract authorizes up to $2.8 million in spending, the state has paid out only $1.18 million thus far, and might not reach the maximum cap.

    He said the decision to forego the bidding process for the bulk of the “deliverables” contained in the GMMB contract was in part because of confidence he had in the firm, based on its work for Vermont in a previous health insurance reform initiative.

    The state’s most recent contract with GMMB isn’t the first time Vermont has enlisted its services. Over a 14-month period between 2007 and 2008, the state inked two contracts worth nearly $2 million for help with public relations, marketing and outreach on Catamount Health, a program signed into law by then-Gov. James Douglas to subsidize insurance for lower-income residents.

    “The decision was made then to spend Vermont taxpayer dollars on this very same firm, and therefore it seemed prudent to spend federal tax dollars now on the same firm,” Shumlin said, referencing the fact that the most recent contract is underwritten entirely by federal grants.

    Douglas has been among the critics of the Shumlin administration’s contract with GMMB. He told VTDigger.org this week that, unlike officials in the administration of his successor, he “never had any concerns” about how Catamount would be portrayed publicly.

    In fact, a $1.4 million contract signed by his administration in April 2007 called on GMMB to perform many of the same PR services for Catamount which the firm is doing now for Vermont Health Connect.

    In justifying the expenditure, Douglas’ Office of Health Access said that in order for Catamount “to be successful,” the state will need a “broad-based, compelling message that conveys to all Vermonters why it is important to have health insurance coverage.”

    The contract under Douglas also called for a “staged-approach marketing campaign to maximize enrollment.” And GMMB was also paid in 2007 to “develop and write public relations plans and strategies,” including “writing press releases, coordinating special events, and conducting communication audits.”

    It’s unclear whether those communication audits included the same kinds of reporter-by-reporter analyses contained in the “landscape report” submitted by GMMB for Vermont Health Connect.

    Asked whether he’s entirely satisfied with the products delivered by GMMB, Larson said that generally he is. And compared with the expenses incurred by the state for Catamount in 2007, Larson said, Vermont’s budget for outreach and marketing now is well within the bounds of good judgment.

    “Let’s think about the number of Vermonters who are impacted by Vermont Health Connect, compared to the number affected by Catamount,” Larson said.

    About 14,000 Vermonters were enrolled in Catamount at its height.

    “And I think when you look at how many people are affected, and the scope of the change involved, the amount of money we’re spending to help Vermonters get information seems reasonable,” Larson said.

    Shumlin said he’ll withhold judgement on GMMB’s performance until next year, when the state has a clearer idea of how many of the 100,000 Vermonters who are required by law to buy insurance on Vermont Health Connect actually have it.

    “I think that the proof will be in the execution of Vermont Health Connect … and it’s way too early to judge any of us involved in this process,” Shumlin said. “It’s like asking the jury to make a judgment before they’ve heard the evidence.”

    peter.hirschefld@rutlandherald.com

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