Ezra Klein on the Insurance Gold Rush

In all of 2012, health insurers spent $216 million advertising on local television stations. But that’s nothing compared to what they’re about to spend. According to trade association TVB, insurers will spend more than $500 million on local television ads in 2014. And that’s to say nothing of cable television ads and social media campaigns.

Insurers look at these next few years as a gold rush. Tens of millions of people will be buying private insurance of the exchanges. It’s a swarm of customers like nothing they’ve ever seen. And they plan to capture them — even if they need to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to do so.

The Wall Street Journal reports that WellPoint has been holding off “on a planned campaign as problems with the website made it impossible for many consumers to sign up.” But now thatHealthCare.Gov is more or less working the insurance giant plans to spend $100 million by the end of the year.

These ads aren’t just a boon to local television stations. They’re a boon to the new health law which’ll be promoted in a sustained ad campaign that rivals the presidential election in size and scale. The ads won’t be specifically about Obamacare, of course — they’re about brand building for WellPoint and Cigna and others insurers — but many of the ads will tell consumers where they can go to buy this wonderful product they’ve just heard such glowing things about. Many of the ads will capture the eye of someone who knows they need to buy insurance before tax time but hasn’t quite gotten around to doing it. And then it will direct them to their local exchange, or at least to their insurer’s Web site.

The fact that the insurers are launching their campaigns is also independent confirmation that HealthCare.Gov is rapidly improving. major insurers are virtually the only group aside from the federal government that has real visibility into the functioning of Obamacare’s digital architecture. They know what the pace of enrollment looks like, and how many 834s are being correctly generated, and whether angry customers are calling their help lines. They know there are still problems even if the Obama administration is downplaying them. But if they think the system is sound enough to begin driving people to it that’s good evidence that the improvements are real.

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