Price of Publicity: Idaho spends millions to push health exchange

BOISE, Idaho (KBOI) -- Your Health Idaho has one of the smallest staffs of any state-based health insurance exchange in the country -- just six people.

But by the end of February, Idaho ranked second nationally for per capita sign ups.

How did this enrollment success happen?

Well, Your Health Idaho got some outside help and American taxpayers like you paid for it.

"We are using vendors to help us get everything done that we need to do on the compressed timeline we're working on," said Jody Olson, director of communications for Your Health Idaho.

One of those outside private companies is the storied Northwest firm of Gallatin Public Affairs with offices in Idaho, Washington and Oregon. And Gallatin does not come cheap.

The firm landed an eight-month, $5.7 million contract with Your Health Idaho that expires this month.

We wanted to know what the state got in return for spending millions of taxpayer dollars, all of it federal grant money, on what is essentially a public relations campaign.

"Build a website, create a brand, get a name for us," said Olson. "Do all the copyright stuff, earned media, create paid media campaigns."
According to Gallatin, the biggest portion of that contract went for paid media advertising, some $3.2 million worth.

The rest went to things like market research, community outreach and social media although Your Health Idaho reports Gallatin came in about $900,000 below budget.

And Gallatin used that money to launch a statewide media blitz to promote Idaho's health insurance exchange.

"And so I think we've been very successful in getting the word out to Idahoans," said Gallatin's John Kotek, "and reaching those people who are really most in need of getting the information."

This wasn't the first time the state paid Gallatin Public Affairs for public relations advice.

In 2010, according to the Idaho Transportation Department, the state paid $4,419 to Gallatin for "litigation assistance" in the wrongful termination lawsuit brought by former ITD director Pam Lowe.

I tried to find out how much money in general the state pays to private public relations firms. I called the State Controller's office and was referred to the state's Purchasing Division. But I couldn't get an answer.

However, Your Health Idaho's relationship with Gallatin is not over. On April 18, the state health insurance exchange's board of directors extended the Gallatin contract through June 30 in an amount not to exceed $406,000.

More tax dollars going to educate taxpayers about the new era in health insurance coverage.