Ferd MitchellEver since its passage in March 2010, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has posed a branding challenge for healthcare organizations. Branding of an organization is an important way to attract outside customers to a known and recognized business, and to give employees a sense of contribution and purpose. If a business brand begins to falter, so can financial performance.

The challenge for healthcare organizations comes with aligning their brands with the ACA’s “brand.” Polarization of public opinion regarding the ACA has created branding problems that have complicated the branding efforts for healthcare organizations.

Cheryl MitchellThe ACA has had branding problems from the start. Even in the industry, the full name Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), which sounds commendable enough, is rarely used anymore in its entirety, with most references now being made simply to the ACA, which has little intuitive meaning for the public at-large. For the wider public, a more easily recognizable name might better convey the meaning, “a major redesign of the healthcare system to improve services and reduce costs.”  Yet the government has yet to come up with any popular reference to the law that has nearly the same level of appeal and public acceptance as “Medicare.”

The first real steps toward “branding” the ACA occurred when “Obamacare” was introduced to represent the new law. Initially, this name was intended as a pejorative term coined by the law’s critics, but in a counter-measure, it came to be embraced by the law’s supporters. Ever since, there have been competing efforts to establish the public meaning of this brand, with both factions continuing apply this name for their own purposes. (See for example Somashekhar, S., “Democrats Like Health Reform Better when It’s Called ‘Obamacare,’ Republicans Not So Much,” www.washingtonpost.com, June 19, 2013.)

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has undertaken a new branding effort with its outreach initiative to educate consumers about how to access the new health insurance exchanges, which it now refers to as marketplaces (in yet another example of the branding difficulties that have been associated with the law). However, whether this effort will produce the desired results during the next few months is yet to be seen. 

It is tempting to simply watch and wait, and see how these efforts turn out. However, the slow migration in the brands of all healthcare organizations toward embracing the ACA over the three years since passage of the law is worrisome. 

Moreover, there appears to be reduced public acceptance of activities to modify the healthcare system. The public image of the nation’s healthcare system is in play. Recent polls indicate widespread dissatisfaction with the government’s management of health care, which may be a consequence of the loud and caustic debate around the ACA. (See, for example, www.gallup.com/poll/163487/americans-praise-gov-work-natural-disasters-parks.aspx) In any case, the positives associated with the ACA for “healthcare improvement” are in decline, while the negatives for all change appear to becoming more pronounced.

In this environment, a challenging period is starting for healthcare organizations, as implementation of the ACA shifts into high over the next six months. Competing efforts at branding and rebranding the ACA can have a significant impact on the carefully managed brands associated with these organizations.

In this unfolding drama, healthcare managers may want to consider protective moves to limit the potential damage. One possible strategy is to keep the organizational brand as isolated as possible from any association with the ACA. Another strategy is to manage how these brands link together.

To keep the brands isolated, for instance, organizations can promote their own brands strongly over the next 6 months, while avoiding mention of the ACA. News or press releases may be prepared largely without any reference to the ACA. References that are unavoidable can be downplayed as activities simply reflecting the organization’s efforts to comply with requirements of the Act. 

Alternatively, to manage brand connections, organizations can emphasize those aspects of the ACA that may contribute positively to image, and minimize any aspects that may have negative overtones. For example, news releases may be written for—and sent directly to—state agencies and the new exchange marketplaces, in the hope that they will be picked up and re-released to emphasize the positive aspects of relationships. Releases to the public may be structured to draw on selected positive features of the ACA, such as improved coverage of preventive services, to build up the organizational brand. 

A well-developed and monitored business brand is an important organizational asset. Now is a good time for organizational managers to recognize the risks inherent in having their organizations’ brands be too closely associated with the ACA, and to take measured steps to enter 2014 that will allow their organizations to remain neutral to potential adverse developments surrounding implementation of the act. 


Ferd H. Mitchell is an attorney, Mitchell Law Office, Spokane, Wash., and a member of HFMA’s Washington-Alaska Chapter.


Cheryl Mitchell is an attorney, Mitchell Law Office, Spokane, Wash.

Publication Date: Friday, August 02, 2013