What makes a health influencer? Find out by clicking here for a special podcast featuring Ray Kerins, SVP, communications, government relations, and policy, Bayer, and Eileen Sheil, executive director, corporate communications, Cleveland Clinic, who discuss authenticity, data and analytics, and much more as they share the tactics and philosophies that helped earn them places on the 2017 PRWeek and MM&M Health Influencer 50 list.

Participants
-Jenifer Antonacci, director, US public affairs, Incyte
-Karen Boykin-Towns, VP, corporate affairs, Pfizer Innovative Health
-Liliana Gil Valletta, cofounder and CEO, Cien+
-Lynn Hanessian, chief science strategist, health, Edelman
-Ray Kerins, SVP, communications, government relations, and policy, Bayer
-Larry Mickelberg, MD, life sciences agency lead, Deloitte Digital
-Laura Schoen, president, global healthcare practice and chair, Latin America, Weber Shandwick
-Eileen Sheil, executive director, corporate communications, Cleveland Clinic

Despite threats by the current administration to abolish – or at least significantly cut – it, the Affordable Care Act remains in place. Still, in addition to being a political football and a source of polarization, the legislation’s particulars remain one of the biggest sources of confusion. And in a marketplace where misinformation abounds and emotions run high, communicators in the space have their work cut out to break through the clutter to get the right information to the intended audience.

It’s a challenge indeed, but also a great opportunity, agree the eight industry leaders, including several from the 2017 PRWeek and MM&M Health Influencer 50 list, who gathered at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. for this Bayer-hosted roundtable.

“There’s so much still unknown about so many segments of the Affordable Care Act,” says Ray Kerins, SVP of communications, government relations, and policy, Bayer. “We’re trying to be that voice of reason, that voice of trust to so many around the country.”

Crafting meaningful messaging to help consumers make smart healthcare-coverage decisions can be difficult when information is continually shifting. “We look to be that trusted partner that will be agile so when there are changes, we can help ensure that information gets out,” notes Karen Boykin-Towns, VP of corporate affairs, Pfizer Innovative Health.

With healthcare at 18% of the GDP, the stakes are high. “We try to stay on a really tight message about quality, access, and how we make care affordable to patients – and coverage is a big key,” explains Eileen Sheil, executive director of corporate communications at the Cleveland Clinic, who expressed concern that smaller hospitals in rural areas could be forced to close if they can’t join an integrated health system.

And it’s not just consumers who seek clarity on the subject. Employers do, as well.

Like many other business owners, Liliana Gil Valletta, cofounder and CEO of data-driven marketing agency Cien+, has moved from a traditional small-group offering to a healthcare stipend – a move that gives employees more freedom of choice, but also more responsibility to keep on top of changes in their coverage.

“It’s no surprise why 60% of business owners are against the Affordable Care Act,” she affirms. “It’s not because we don’t want to provide benefits.” However, an uncertain pricing model and unexpected premium hikes can force employers to shift responsibility to the employee.

More informed consumers
Some specialized patient populations have become so shrewd about healthcare options that communications pros have to work even harder to stay one step ahead of developments.

Laura Schoen, president of the global healthcare practice and Latin America chair at Weber Shandwick, cites HIV patients as an example of a group that has developed quite an understanding about which insurance programs offer the best coverage.

Jenifer Antonacci, director of US public affairs at Incyte, says her company is enriching its patient-assistance programs and is communicating with oncology patients about issues such as financial planning for long-term care.

“Within the cancer space, we have very savvy consumers,” she explains. “They sometimes know before we do what’s happening and can help us and make sure we’re staying one step ahead of it with them.”

All panelists effusively agreed that data is a game-changing tool when communicating on this issue.

“We have data that shows that when women have access to contraception, there’s less of a burden and impact on the overall society,” notes Kerins. “Bayer is working with a number of women’s organizations to expand access to contraceptives. We are trying to engage as many people on the Hill as possible to use real data to show how access to contraception can help individuals, as well as save taxpayer dollars.”

Panelists felt that in the face of new tax legislation, healthcare issues would continue to be in the spotlight – particularly as wealth remains unevenly distributed.

“If we don’t do a better job of creating and maintaining access, we will face quite a bit of a roller coaster as different constituents get out and express their disgust, anger, or fear,” warns Lynn Hanessian, Edelman’s chief science strategist, health.

And then there are developments that directly impact the marcomms sector. The White House is moving ahead with eliminating the DTC marketing tax deduction – a move the roundtable panelists find surprising considering that the current administration is positioned as being pro-business.

“There is a real risk that clients will not be able to deduct the cost of their marketing programs,” says Larry Mickelberg, MD, life sciences agency lead, Deloitte Digital. “What does that do to the communications platforms of these companies?”

“America, in medical advertising and communications, leads the world in terms of innovation, communication to patients, and digital communication,” adds Schoen. “Let’s not cut its legs.”

A cut to the Orphan Drug tax credit was another concern raised by the panel. Current law allows companies to write off 50% of the research costs of developing drugs for diseases that strike fewer than 200,000 people. Now, the credit will drop to 25%.

“The Orphan Drug Act is one of the most successful pieces of legislation in terms of starting innovation and really protecting people who might not ordinarily have access to medicines,” asserts Antonacci. “It’s troubling that something like that could be up for consideration.”

Meanwhile, Hanessian brought up initiatives in Oregon specifically designed to attack vaccines access. “Problems we thought were solved, ” she says, “might not be now.”

All of these issues combine to create understandable concern about the pharmaceutical industry’s overall image – a challenge all communicators in the space must – and can – overcome.

“We must put ourselves at the highest level point we can to support the communities we serve, whether that’s our CSR program, patient-assistance programs, however we do it.” explains Kerins. “We work with both sides of the aisle because, at the end of the day, we’re trying to find that compromise.”

The opioid epidemic has reached crisis stage. Healthcare brands that don’t re-craft their messaging in response to shifting U.S. demographics will be left behind. In the March issue of PRWeek, find out our esteemed roundtable’s thoughts on these and other major issues impacting the healthcare sector.

Click here for “Insights from a Health Influencer,” a video featuring Bayer’s Ray Kerins in which he discusses his brand’s policy priorities, community partnerships, and staunch belief in the importance of authenticity.