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Enrollment problems continue to dog Cover Oregon’s balky website, despite millions of dollars spent trying to get the system running. Despite the well-publicized woes, however, state officials say they are making progress toward getting people enrolled in time to avoid federal penalties.
All of which makes Cover Oregon a prime target for critics who say the state’s new health-insurance marketplace is too expensive, too intrusive and too restrictive.
U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., took a shot at Cover Oregon in his new "Wastebook 2013" -- a comic-book-style tome he puts out each year highlighting what he calls 100 examples of wasted taxpayer dollars.
Chapter Nine, "Millions Spent Building, Promoting an Insurance Plan Few Want and a Website that Doesn’t Work," said this: "Oregon is spending $10 million advertising Obamacare with advertisements that don’t even mention the program or how to enroll in it."
He singles out two television ads, both produced for Cover Oregon by NORTH, a Portland advertising agency. One spot, Coburn said, "does not mention the word ‘insurance,’ " while another, he added, "does not mention the word ‘insurance,’ but features what appears to be Gumby riding on the Beatles’ yellow submarine." The implication is that the state spent a ton of money on ads that may have been clever but not direct or effective.
Did Cover Oregon spend $10 million for television ads that didn’t mention the word ‘insurance’? PolitiFact Oregon checked.
The many assertions in "Wastebook 2013" are heavily footnoted, so we checked there first to see which sources Coburn relied on.
The first footnote for the Cover Oregon claim took us to a July 28, 2013, cbsnews.com story, which reported that Cover Oregon’s new ad campaign cost $10 million. The second footnote linked directly to one of the Cover Oregon ads, "Fly With Your Own Wings," a 31-second animated ad that opens and closes with the words "Cover Oregon."
The television ad included a pleasantly peppy song but never used the word "insurance." So on that score, at least, Coburn’s claim appears to be on the mark. Still, wondering about context, we called Mark Ray, the NORTH principal and creative director who produced the ads.
The spots Coburn focuses on in his "Wastebook," Ray said, were the very first ads produced to market Cover Oregon. They were intended to raise general awareness about the program rather than rain down nuts-and-bolts specifics, he said. Details on how and where to enroll were included in subsequent spots. This is a common strategy for rolling out brand-new programs.
"He’s cherry-picking something he doesn’t understand," Ray said of Coburn.
In Ray’s view, the campaign has been a smashing success. The 7 percent public awareness of Cover Oregon in May, he said, had soared to 78 percent in September, based on follow-up polling. "Those are the best results I’ve had in my career," he said.
So we have disagreement on omission of the word "insurance" in Cover Oregon’s first advertisements. Coburn is correct that it’s not there. But Ray adds important context in noting that the ads were early and part of a campaign designed to morph from general to specific. Newer ads, available on Cover Oregon’s YouTube page, provide details of how and where to enroll, and nearly all use the word "insurance."
That still leaves the $10 million figure cited in Coburn’s "Wastebook." Wanting to know exactly what the figure, in the senator’s view, represented, we contacted John Hart, Coburn’s communications manager. He spoke only of Cover Oregon’s initial television ads. In an email, he wrote, "If the state of Oregon or local communities like Portland want to fund these ads we would applaud their effort to make their state a haven for indie rockers or lumberjacks without insurance, as the ad melodically suggests." Neither he nor "Wastebook 2013" addressed any other elements of the marketing campaign.
We then called Michael Cox, Cover Oregon’s communications director. He said the ads singled out in the "Wastebook" actually cost $3.5 million to produce and air. The $10 million figure, he said, came from a news report cited in the "Wastebook" footnotes that mistakenly conflated the total costs of the campaign’s first phase -- which included Spanish-language spots, information fliers and fact sheets -- with the costs of the TV ads Coburn spotlighted. Even then, he said, the total costs of the first phase were $8.3 million, not $10 million.
We called Coburn’s office again and asked Hart about the figures provided by Cox. "We didn’t claim they’ve spent $10 million," Hart said. "That was the amount budgeted. If they’ve spent less, that’s terrific."
We glanced back at "Wastebook 2013," which leads its Cover Oregon claim by saying, "Oregon is spending $10 million advertising Obamacare…"
Cover Oregon has not spent $10 million on the ads Coburn singles out in his "Wastebook 2013." A budget passed along by Cox puts the figure at $3.5 million. A Coburn spokesman brushed aside the difference by saying his office never said that $10 million had been spent, only that it had been budgeted. The spokesman’s own words, however, are contradicted by the senator’s "Wastebook 2013" entry on Cover Oregon.
On Coburn’s first claim, the Cover Oregon ads in question do not mention the word "insurance." But the context in this case is vital. These were not the campaign’s only ads, and later ads make details clear.
We also find that the senator completely missed the mark on the amount of money spent. We rate the claim Mostly False.
Email exchange with John Hart, communications director for Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., Jan. 2, 3, and 6, 2014.
Telephone interview with Michael Cox, communications director, Cover Oregon, Jan. 2, 2014.
Telephone interview with Mark Ray, principal and creative director, NORTH, Jan. 3, 2014.
Cover Oregon YouTube clip: "Fly With Your Own Wings."
Cover Oregon YouTube clip: "Live Long in Oregon."
cbsnews.com, "Oregon Spends Big to Pitch Youth on Obamacare Benefits," July 18, 2013.
"Wastebook 2013," produced by Sen. Coburn’s office, Dec. 17, 2013.
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