Would you buy health insurance in a store?

at 10:14 AM ET, 04/25/2012


Scott Serota, president and chief executive officer of Blue Cross Blue Shield Association. (Andrew Harrer - Bloomberg)
Three years ago, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida did something unexpected for an insurance company: It began opening stores.

They weren’t clinics. They did not provide much in the way of medical care. Instead, the buildings housed something that feels almost antiquated: a place where consumers could walk in, meet a Florida Blue representative, and purchase an insurance policy.

In many ways, the Florida health plan was making an odd choice: The Internet already provides a nearly free storefront. Health insurance companies regularly talk about getting squeezed financially, as the health reform law requires them to spend at least 80 percent of every premium dollar on medical costs.

Why, then, put the other 20 percent towards brick-and-mortar buildings?

“Why did Apple decide to open stores, when they could sell everything they sell online?” asks Patrick Geraghty, CEO of Florida Blue Cross Blue Shield. “There’s an experience attached to it. It puts a face on the organization.”

The plan’s movement into retail, in many ways, responds to the health reform law: Come 2014, the health reform law will expand the individual health insurance market by an estimated 16 million new customers. Individuals will become increasingly involved with purchasing their own health care, putting a greater premium on customer service.

“Traditionally, Blue Cross Blue Shield has been in a business-to-business environment,” says the company’s CEO, Scott Serota, when I spoke with him and Geraghty Tuesday afternoon. “Now our biggest challenge is to evolve into a consumer-focused company.”

Right now, however, insurance companies aren’t in a great place in this front. In surveys, consumers have ranked the health insurance industry as the most complex and confusing to navigate. Americans put more time and effort into researching dishwashers than they do shopping for an insurance plan.

Florida Blue Cross Blue Shield has opened nine “Florida Blue” centers so far, a number that will continue to grow. Two launched this year alone, with four more in the works by the end of 2012. The retail stores offer staff who can help enroll in a plan, assist with claims and offer a wellness assessment. One of the stores, in Pensacola, recently added a primary care physician on site.

As the stores have opened, the demand seems to be there. When a Florida Blue storefront opened in Tallahassee recently, it had about 1,500 people come through over the first weekend.

“Our members are interested in our online tools, but sometimes need to be walked through that,” says Geraghty. “You can come into this center with a stack of your claims that you have an issue with or a question about, and hand them over, and we walk through those claims and resolve those claims in front of you while you’re there. It’s very, very popular with our membership.”

Florida Blue Cross Blue Shield was already on the way to retail stores before the Affordable Care Act passed, as fewer Americans received insurance through their employers may be turning to the individual market. The expansion of the insurance market, Geraghty says, only makes it more important for his insurance plan to have a strong retail presence moving forward.

“We think we’re well positioned for that expansion,” he says. “We know we have to advance retail capabilities. That’s what you’re seeing here. A real investment in the retail side of our business to connect to our members on that one-to-one basis.”

 
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