National, local controversy greets opening of new state health exchange

Critics say Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox ad campaign misfires with communities of color


By Charles Hallman

Staff Writer


MNsure, the state’s health insurance exchange program, debuted the signup process on October 1. Officials during an October 4 conference call with reporters, including the MSR, estimated that 5,000 accounts were opened during the first week.

“We think it’s been going very well,” remarked MNsure Executive Director April Todd-Malmlov. She added that many people did “anonymous shopping” but did not disclose specific numbers.

“Minnesota is unique,” said Todd-Malmlov. “We are one of the few states that have anonymous shopping, so people can go onto the site and see what plans are available without creating an account. Most other states and the federal MNsurepaul-bunyan_39government require you to create an account before you can even see what plans are available or what their plans might be.”

Enrollment numbers will be available October 16, Todd-Malmlov announced. However before MNsure’s launch, some Blacks — including the state’s only two Black state senators — criticized the program’s community outreach effort. Sen. Jeff Hayden told the MSR in a recent interview that last month at a legislative oversight committee meeting that he took MNsure officials “to task” after he learned that though a Somali group, a Hmong group and a Latino group received grants, apparently the “historic legacy organizations in the African American community” were bypassed in receiving outreach grants awarded to 30 groups totaling $4 million.

“I was extremely surprised,” recalled Sen. Hayden after he conducted three focus groups this summer at his office with representatives from “federally qualified healthcare clinics, historic African American organizations, as well as members of the Somali and Indian communities.

“I put out a broad list [of community organizations] that the MNsure people [would] know who they were before they went to this [selection] process,” added Hayden, who said officials afterwards “found an additional $750,000 that they are targeting towards the group of people that did not get [included in] the original [$4 million] grant. We are confident but cautious that those issues that Sen. [Bobby Joe] Champion and I brought to light will be addressed.”

“We have a new panel of reviewers,” noted Todd-Malmlov last week when asked by the MSR for comment about the criticism. “We are going through those grant applications and [will] get those funds out as soon as possible.”

(l-r)Stella Whitney-West, Jeff Hayden, April Todd-Malmlov
(l-r)Stella Whitney-West, Jeff Hayden, April Todd-Malmlov

Furthermore, some Blacks also criticized MNsure’s Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox marketing campaign released in August as culturally irrelevant to communities of color.

“I’m concerned how the message is flowing down [to the Black community],” admitted Turning Point Executive Director Peter Hayden. “The Paul Bunyan [ad campaign] has nothing to do from a cultural standpoint with us. That is not going to make us go get our medical needs taken care of.”

He also was concerned that local Black community-based organizations were passed over for MNsure outreach grants. “You’ve got to have people from a cultural point of view who can tell communities [of color] how [MNsure] is going to work for them, their families and loved ones,” Hayden pointed out.

“We are disappointed that the advertisements certainly aren’t targeting the Black community [or other] communities of color,” added NorthPoint Health and Wellness Executive Director Stella Whitney-West. “Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox? Really? I think MNsure missed the mark.

“I have been in meetings with MNsure, Sen. Hayden and Sen. Champion, and one of the things we talked about was it was important for the African American community and other communities of color that those organizations that traditionally have impact and the ability to have the outreach in those communities, that there would be funding available to get that message out,” Whitney West said.

Her North Minneapolis clinic did, however, receive a MNsure grant to hire outreach workers, Whitney-West told the MSR last week. “NorthPoint certainly did apply, and we were funded, but it takes more than just one or two organizations.”

KMOJ-FM received some MNsure funds from the Association of Minnesota Public Educational Radio Stations (AMPERS), of which the community non-commercial station is a member, said Station Manager Kelvin Quarles. He told the MSR last week that MNsure’s outreach campaign should involve “diverse communities as much as possible.”

“I think they are reanalyzing what they are doing,” he said.

Todd-Malmlov claimed, “We have multiple other formats that are targeted to specific communities. We have been trying to make sure that we are reaching out to all populations across the state, and we put a lot of effort into that.

“I also make sure that we are doing the best possible job we can,” she said. “We are constantly making sure that we are getting feedback from people and incorporating that into what we do.”

“People are hearing bits and pieces [about MNsure], and it’s our responsibility to provide the education and dispel some of the myths,” states Whitney-West. “We were expecting that there would be more material, more marketing, more educational material available that would be targeted to various communities.”

MNsure is the result of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which according to a recent national poll is three times more popular among Blacks than among Whites. The Pew Research study released September 16 also shows that, although 53 percent of Americans “disapprove” of the ACA while 42 percent approve, the law’s popularity or unpopularity is pretty much divided along political party, age and racial lines:

• Seventy-five percent of Republicans think the ACA will negatively impact the country as opposed to 63 percent of Democrats who sees it as a positive.

• The ACA has a 46 percent approval rate among persons aged 18-29.

• Black approval of the ACA has risen from 50 percent in 2009 to 91 percent this year, while White approval has decreased from 33 percent in 2009 to 29 percent this year.

“The Black community and other communities of color is where the greatest disparities are in terms of lack of insurance,” noted Whitney-West.

Despite the current political gridlock in Washington, MNsure is moving right along, Todd-Malmlov believes.

“I know the organizations in the Black community that did not receive [MNsure] funding are committed to providing accurate information to people — committed to make sure that African Americans, people of color, and poor people get access to health care,” said Whitney-West.


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