With online part of health exchange down, Cover Oregon halts ads

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - With its troubled health insurance exchange portal still not working, Cover Oregon says it has suspended its optimistic, feel-good advertising campaign after spending more than $8 million on it this year.

The exchange's television, radio and newspaper ads have been pulled, Cover Oregon spokesman Michael Cox said on Thursday, while the "Long Live Oregonians" billboards will come down as payment expires.

In one of the TV ads, folk singer Laura Gibson sings chirpily that Oregon's spirit is "to care for each one, each daughter and son."

But the launch of Cover Oregon didn't live up to the ad campaign's optimism.

Three months after it was supposed to go live, Oregon's exchange is yet to launch and the state has had to rely exclusively on paper applications. Cover Oregon hired more than 400 workers to process the applications manually.

An estimated 36,000 Oregonians have thus far enrolled through Cover Oregon, including about 12,000 in private health insurance and about 24,000 in the Oregon Health Plan. Thousands of others have been determined eligible for health coverage starting Jan. 1, but have still not enrolled.

The ad campaign was slated to cost about $20 million, including public relations and community outreach, almost all of it in federal money. Cox said $8.3 million of that has been spent so far.

The remaining $11.7 million will be used to cover public relations, community outreach, and advertising costs for a new strategy to be developed in January 2014. That money is supposed to last through the end of 2014. The contract was awarded to North, a Portland advertising agency.

Cox said Cover Oregon does not have a timeline to bring back the ads, but it will revise its ad strategy next year "to meet our needs through the open enrollment period."

The TV spots played to the myth of Portlandia, featuring cheery local folk singers strumming guitars and crooning about Oregon's iconic landmarks, independent spirit and healthy lifestyle.

Officials said the ads were meant to be hip and celebratory to help Cover Oregon attract young and healthy people. Whether they helped is not known - the exchange has still not released a breakdown of enrollees by age.

Critics lambasted the campaign for lack of any specifics - the ads hardly mentioned Cover Oregon nor explained what it is.

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Full coverage of the troubled Cover Oregon website: