Hiding Big Brother:

Southern Cross Puts Positive Spin
on Reduction of Choice

If you’re a suitably cynical and sharp-minded consumer, you’ll have noticed the tendency of medical insurance companies to send out a happy, cheery, positive letter/newsletter whenever they want to announce something that isn’t actually so cheery at all. (Premium rise announcements typically take this thinly-disguised form.)

Last week, Southern Cross Health Society, New Zealand’s most-recognised, “household name” medical insurance provider, of which I am a policyholder, sent me a letter.

Buried away in a small 8cm single-column item, under the appealing headline, ‘Helping to Keep Your Premiums Affordable’, was what actually turned out to be a disguised announcement that policy holders are about to have their health care provider choices dictated in a considerably increased number of instances.

The article demonstrates classic employment of reader psychology manipulation. (There’s a reason PR firms charge phenomenal fees).

It starts out:

‘Rising healthcare costs continue to be a concern for our members.’

Tactic:  Soften the blow with reverse psychology i.e. the reader’s initial reaction is likely to be based on the subliminal fear of a premium hike . . . ‘Oh, they’re not going to put the premiums up again, are they?’ Then create a false positive mindset by virtue of relief that there is to be no price hike i.e. it’s “only” the elimination of choice of your own service provider.

Next paragraph:

‘To help keep your future health insurance premiums affordable, we’re extending the list of healthcare services that require you to see an Affiliated Provider to be eligible for cover under your policy.’ (Again, this seems the lesser of the two evils by far. However, in their “relieved” state, the reader is distracted from thinking about the real, in-practice implications of the actual announcement. Further tactic:  Employ positive phraseology in announcing the negative news:  ‘We’re extending the list of healthcare services . . . ‘)

Next paragraph:

‘These include selected skin, eye, throat, heart and imaging services.’ (Now that’s quite a list, if you think about it.)


‘Turn over for more details, plus helpful information about Affiliated Providers.’ (Tactic:  Inject a maximum number of words registered by the reader’s subconscious mind as pleasing and positive i.e. “details”, “helpful”, “Affiliated”.

And a further tactic at the macro level:  Surround this disguised, minimal word count announcement with visual positive associations e.g. an article beside it features six large “ticks”.

The bottom line:

Consumers need to be increasingly switched on to these tactics.

A healthy dose of consumer cynicism is essential in today’s marketplace, with its often smarmily-strategised marketing communications.

Response received from Southern Cross:

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Dear Ms Kelly,

Thank you for forwarding your comments regarding the benefit review communication recently sent to you. We appreciate your going to the trouble to provide this feedback.

We feel the communication regarding the various changes is appropriate. The greater part of the material addresses the benefit enhancements. The change to the new unlimited maximums for surgical cover is significant, and comment on the other benefit changes is appropriate as well. We consider both the communication and the format is positive, informative, and assists members to review and understand the changes.

The space allocated to the Affiliated Provider aspect is balanced, both in the way it is presented and emphasised. The notation on the page you refer to is accompanied by the highlighted panel on the ‘Your guide to the Affiliated Providers’ page, which emphasises ‘New Affiliated Provider-only healthcare services’ at the head of the listing. We feel this suitably brings these issues to members’ attention, in an appropriate manner.

Communication to members about Affiliated Provider contracting is not new, with the Society having been developing these arrangements from the late 1990s. The need to contract is motivated by two aspects which members have continued to express concern about. One is the continued escalation of healthcare costs, the other, the impact that this has on premium levels. Affordability remains a constant concern for members, driving by increasing utilisation of benefits, and increasing medical costs. Claims cost inflation in the many areas where contracts are in place has been well below general levels, and justifies the Society continuing work on those factors that impact affordability.

You are quite right to mention the factor of choice. As the Society has developed the concept of contracting with providers, there has been a focus on ensuring that there is adequate coverage of providers to ensure that there is significant choice before a service becomes ‘Affiliated Provider only’. In essence, maintaining affordability is all about maintaining choice, as those who abandon heath insurance through cost, are also abandoning choice.

The Society is committed to the concept of contracting with providers. We do see it as an important aspect for maintaining affordability and access to healthcare for our many members.

Yours Sincerely

Peter Turnwald

Member Relations Manager

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