Hospital Takes Reactive Approach to Crisis PR

Negotiations over a requested increase in rates broke down between Children's National Medical Center and CareFirst, the Washington, D.C. arm of BlueCross BlueShield on Nov. 1. That evening, CareFirst issued a press release slamming the hospital for what it called an "excessive rate increase request." Since then, both sides have launched aggressive campaigns to reach consumers, including paid advertising in local publications and on the air. But Children's has remained relatively reactive in its PR approach, with no press releases, nothing on its online press center and no proactive outreach to local media. "At this point, we're communicating with existing patients and communicating with parents in the area to let them know Children's won't be available to them in-network" if they're CareFirst customers, says Lynn Cantwell, Children's director of PR. Cantwell says the hospital "doesn't want to jeopardize [continued] negotiations that might be fruitful" or enter a negative proactive campaign if there's a possibility it might have to work with CareFirst again in the future. Ads and responses to media requests have therefore focused on key messages and avoided slamming the deep-pocketed insurance company. Messages include the level of care Children's is able to provide and the devastating impact of loss of care to many children. Communicators also emphasize that Children's asked for a rate increase that would allow the nonprofit to break even, and that the rate would be commensurate with similar healthcare providers' rates. The PR department at Children's has asked the editorial board of The Washington Post to meet with them, however, and they say their reactive strategy may change beginning this week after the end of federal open enrollment season. CareFirst representatives did not return our requests for comment by our deadline. (Cantwell, 202/884-4500)

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