Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Ohio has started an advertising campaign to counter criticism of its proposed merger with the nation's largest hospital chain.
Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp., based in Nashville, Tenn., hopes to buy most of the business of the Ohio Blues, the state's largest health insurer. The proposed $299.5 million deal is awaiting the approval of Blues policyholders and the Ohio Department of Insurance.
The marketing campaign that began this week includes television commercials in Cleveland and Toledo, Ohio, and newspaper ads in those two cities and the state capital of Columbus.
The three 30-second television commercials, which are aimed at the elderly, small businesses and executives, tout the merits of the proposed deal. The newspaper ad also promotes the merger as a way to "trim the fat and eliminate the redundancies" in the existing healthcare system.
Blues spokesman Dave Buckel said last week that the ad campaign doesn't mean the insurer is worried about the merger falling through.
"We have been confident from the beginning, and we remain so," Buckel said. "We just think this is an effective way of getting information out to the public on what will be a winning combination for everyone."
He said Blues policyholders could vote on the deal as soon as late summer and the merger could receive regulatory approval by the end of the year.
Some opposed to the merger say the ad campaign is an attempt to stem growing opposition.
"I think it's an absolute misuse of funds that should be going to healthcare," said Diane Lardie, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for National Health Care, a consumer organization that's working to stop the deal.
"The ads are a marketing ploy to convince vulnerable people that whatever Blue Cross does is good, and that is not the case," Lardie said. "They are not looking out for people's health; they are looking out for their own bottom line."
Former U.S. Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, who is helping in a class-action lawsuit filed by policyholders who oppose the deal, also was critical of the ad campaign.
"They're determined to foist this deal on the community," the Ohio Democrat told the Akron Beacon Journal. "And they're using the policyholders' own money to sell them a bill of goods."
Buckel said the ad campaign, estimated to cost $350,000 to $400,000, is being financed with money already budgeted for public relations.
Daniel R. Longo, associate professor of family and community medicine at the University of Missouri, said the types of ads being used by the Blues are not unusual.
"The question is, can they substantiate the claims they make about the proposed benefits of the merger?" Longo said. "It's going to be a difficult balancing act to meet the needs and concerns of both (Columbia) stockholders and Blue Cross policyholders."
He said the healthcare industry is watching to see what happens in Ohio.
"This could definitely set a precedent, considering that it would combine a major provider with a major insurer," Longo said.