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Exchange Rates: Feds Pony Up for a Health-Care Ad Blitz 

Fair Game

Haven’t heard of Vermont Health Connect? You will soon.

As the state launches the new, federally mandated health insurance marketplace this fall, it’s planning a $9.5 million public-awareness campaign to spread the word.

That’s good news for you if you don’t know how the so-called exchange will affect the way you buy health insurance. But it’s even better news for me — and everybody else in the Vermont media industry.

That’s because the Department of Vermont Health Access plans to spend $2.3 million of that money — all courtesy of the federal government — on a three-part advertising blitz starting in September and concluding at the end of 2014. According to DVHA deputy commissioner Lindsey Tucker, the campaign will utilize “a mix of media” including television, radio, print and online advertising.

“Our goal is to meet Vermonters where they are and not make them search for it,” Tucker says.

DVHA has already dipped its toes in the advertising waters. It spent roughly $100,000 this spring and summer on 30-second radio spots, print ads and underwriting on Vermont Public Radio to publicize regional forums explaining Vermont Health Connect.

Now the state agency is “finalizing the script” for TV ads it plans to run this fall, Tucker says, when Vermont Health Connect begins enrolling an expected 100,000 Vermonters in private plans. Creating the ads is D.C.-based GMMB, which won a three-year, $3.2 million contract to coordinate the state’s outreach and branding strategy.

The out-of-state political advertising firm is run by Jim Margolis, who produced ads for Barack Obama’s two presidential campaigns and claims to represent “more Democratic senators than any other consultant in the nation.” GMMB produced the memorable “healthy as a horse” ads for the state back in 2007 when it was marketing Catamount Health.

GMMB partner Alison Betty says this time her company is taking a “just the facts” approach.

Placing the $2.3 million media buy will be Richmond-based HMC Advertising. Partner and media director Paula Bazluke says she’ll rely on old-school platforms such as television, radio and print — but also plans to make use of online channels, including Google, Facebook, Hulu, Pandora and mobile apps.

“We want to do the media plan in such a way that it really is reaching the most people we can and informs them and gets them to take action without it being overkill,” she says. “It’s hard, because you can’t do things the way you did them two years ago.”

Even with its focus on new media, the campaign will likely provide a nice stimulus package for the state’s old-media workhorses, which are currently starved of political advertising.

WCAX-TV owner Peter Martin told Seven Days last month that the percentage of revenue his station reaps from political advertising “can get quite big,” thanks to its presence in Vermont, New Hampshire and New York — and the advent of heavy-spending super PACs. But not during the electoral off season!

Not everyone is excited by DVHA’s plan. Vermonters for Health Care Freedom founder Darcie Johnston, who bitterly opposes Obama’s and Gov. Peter Shumlin’s health care overhauls, says the state is “using federal taxpayer dollars as if they’re free.”

Free or not, the money’s rolling in. Last week, the Associated Press estimated that the feds have ponied up $684 million for similar ad campaigns throughout the country.

A wise investment, or a government boondoggle?

According to Tucker, it’s a necessity if health care reform is to be successful.

“It’s incredibly important for all Vermonters to understand what the new law is and what the requirements are, but also what they’re eligible for in October,” she says. “If Vermonters don’t know about it, it’s not useful.”

Rationing-alization

When the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza ranked former governor Howard Dean as the seventh most likely 2016 Democratic presidential nominee earlier this month, his reasoning was clear: Lefties love the guy.

Dean, the Post’s political prognosticator wrote, “retains something of a following among liberals, and if there is a segment of the party looking for an alternative to [heir-to-the-throne Hillary] Clinton, he could be it.”

But that lefty love seemed to fade this week after Dean penned an op-ed in Monday’s Wall Street Journal criticizing a central element of President Obama’s health care overhaul. Dean took issue with the Independent Payment Advisory Board — or, if you speak Palin-ese, the dreaded “death panel.”

Charged with slowing the growth of Medicare spending, the 15-member board will be tasked with setting rates for doctors and drugs. But Dean argues it simply won’t succeed.

Rate setting, he wrote, “has a 40-year track record of failure” — including in his home state of Vermont.

The response from many of Dean’s erstwhile allies was apoplectic.

MSNBC contributor and fellow Vermonter Steve Benen called it a “misplaced” fight. The Los Angeles TimesJon Healey said it was “a little startling” to see Dean employ “the same blatant mischaracterizations that have been the hallmarks of the GOP attacks.” And New Republic senior editor Jonathan Cohn said the piece was “enough to make those of us who defended Dean during his 2004 campaign wonder what the heck we were thinking.”

Benen and Cohn went on to suggest that Dean may have been less inspired by altruism than by his paycheck. Since March 2009, he’s served as a “senior strategic adviser” to McKenna Long & Aldridge, a D.C.-based lobbying firm that represents a slew of health insurance and pharmaceutical interests.

It’s those industries that have the most to fear from the “death panels,” which could cut into their bottom line.

Dean isn’t taking kindly to the suggestion he’s shilling for McKenna’s clients. He notes that he’s not a registered lobbyist and simply provides “political advice” to “the clients I like.”

“What was disappointing was they immediately assumed this is not about the merits. I think that’s a really destructive trend,” the ex-gov tells Seven Days. “Nobody called me, which isn’t very professional. At least they ought to give me the chance to say, ‘No, I’m not a dishonest crook,’ in their articles.”

In fact, Dean argues, he’s been working on cost-containment efforts since he was elected to the Vermont House in 1982. The problem with rate setting in Vermont and elsewhere, he says, is that “the hospitals have plenty of clout” and always end up successfully asking for higher rates.

“It just hasn’t worked here for anybody — for any governor,” he says.

As for whether McKenna’s clients drive his public advocacy, Dean says, “The fact is, it works the other way around. My views are my views. If they like them, they encourage me to speak out about them, which is fine. But I don’t change my views.”

AG Whizzes

The two high-profile Democrats who battled one another in last year’s race for attorney general both say they’ll decide in the coming months whether to give it another go.

“It’s too early to tell. Always keep your options open,” says Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan, who lost to incumbent AG Bill Sorrell by 714 votes. “I would say, if you’re gonna do it, you’ve got to make a decision by fall at the latest.”

Sorrell, who was first appointed to the post in 1997, says he’s on a similar timeline. For now, he says, he’s busy traveling to Colorado, Chicago and Maine, where he’s been talking up Vermont’s legal leadership — and hearing from his fans.

“Those who are reaching out to me, with very limited exceptions, are saying, ‘Please run. You’re a national leader.’ They say very nice things. They say, ‘We need you, whether it’s on environmental protection or consumer protection,’” Sorrell says.

But Sorrell’s not ruling out retirement.

“I do hear from some folks out of state who say, ‘Listen, you could be very valuable to foundations or public health organizations in D.C., New York, other places. You could teach,’” he says. “There is a very good life after the AG world for very good AGs.”

So what’ll tip the scales for Sorrell?

The 66-year-old says that while he’s still energized by his day job, he doesn’t relish campaigning — and he particularly loathes fundraising.

“I love it when I’m standing in line at Costco or whatever and somebody says, ‘Mr. Sorrell, you’re doing such a great job and I always vote for you,’” he says. “It’s the more political stuff that’s just not hugely motivating and reinforcing.”

As for whether Donovan’s plans enter into the equation, Sorrell says he’s “going to make the decision on my own.”

“I’ve proven I can fight,” he adds. “If I wanna win the game enough, the competition will not keep me from competing.”

For Donovan, the decision is a little trickier. A rising star of the Democratic Party, the 39-year-old is clearly angling for statewide office — be it AG, governor or Congress — but can he afford to lose the same office twice in a row? Unlike last time, when he was halfway through a four-year term as state’s attorney, he’d have to give up that job to run.

Donovan says those aren’t his only options. He’s also considering going into private practice.

“I think you look at every option and you weigh it,” he says. “I’m very happy with what I’m doing right now. Could you do more for the state with a statewide office? Yeah. Are there benefits to private practice? Absolutely. But I enjoy my job right now as well.”

And if Sorrell chooses to retire instead, Donovan might not be the only contender. Last time around, House Speaker Shap Smith floated his name for the position before deciding to stay put. At the moment, Smith says, he’s “not giving much consideration to what I’ll be doing in 2014.”

One thing is certain: If Sorrell and Donovan don’t face off again next year, it won’t be because they’ve become BFFs. Asked how he thinks Donovan’s doing as state’s attorney, Sorrell says, “I’m not going to go there.”

How about the reverse?

“I’m not sure my opinion is relevant,” Donovan says.

Not relevant? Wasn’t Sorrell’s tenure the central issue of the 2012 campaign?

“I’m not going to answer that,” he says.

Media Notes

Last week Gov. Peter Shumlin tapped publishing executive Lisa Gosselin to fill the long-vacant position of economic development commissioner. The former Audubon Magazine editor-in-chief spent the last seven years building EatingWell magazine into a publishing powerhouse. Gosselin’s husband, Angelo Lynn, is editor and publisher of the Addison County Independent.

Shumlin also entered the enemy’s lair to hire Lt. Gov. Phil Scott’s chief of staff, Nancy Driscoll, as the state’s new chief marketing officer. Driscoll’s replacement is former journalist Rachel Feldman, who’s leaving her post as web and communications manager at the Vermont Arts Council.

And now for some sad news: After a seven-month battle with pancreatic cancer, Vermont Life publisher Dave Hakins died last Tuesday at the age of 66. The Rutland native got his start as a reporter for the Rutland Herald before moving to New York City to pursue a career in corporate promotions and travel.

Hakins returned to his native Vermont in 2006 and went to work for Vermont Life in May 2011, first as advertising director, then publisher.

“He was just a very kind, solid, good man. And he was very passionate about helping out the magazine,” says Vermont Life editor Mary Hegarty Nowlan. “This was a dream job for him.”

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About The Author

Paul Heintz

Paul Heintz

Bio:
Paul Heintz is Seven Days' political editor. He writes the weekly column, "Fair Game."

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