When Ronda Austins employer stopped offering health coverage last spring, she bought an individual policy from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida.
A month later, she was given a diagnosis of multiple myeloma and began chemotherapy at her oncologists office near her home in Tampa.
But after several sessions, the physicians office said that her plan covered chemotherapy only if it was provided in a hospital and told her she owed the practice $15,000. Austin called her plans member-services number but didnt get anywhere.
So she stopped in at a new kind of insurance facility – her local BCBS of Florida retail store. There, a customer service rep sat down with her and called up her plan information online. She referred Austin to nearby Moffitt Cancer Center for subsequent chemotherapy treatments and explained how to address the problem with the oncologists billing department, which had misread her policy. The problem was quickly resolved.
Its a great feeling to know the insurance company is standing behind you, Austin said.
Health insurers increasingly want to make shopping for a new plan as easy and convenient as dropping into a local retailer to buy a TV. In recent years, a number of them have opened stores where consumers can stop by to talk with a customer service representative about buying a plan or resolve questions about their current coverage. Some stores also sponsor health fairs or community seminars on nutrition and exercise. A few have primary-care doctors on-site.
The stores are big, bold and easy to see, says Marc Pierce, president of Stonegate Advisors, a research and strategy company in Chicago that has helped several insurers evaluate retailing. For insurers, the impetus is to provide a tangible touchpoint so they can provide more value for their customers. The trend should continue, he says, although some insurers are waiting until they know whether the U.S. Supreme Court will strike down the health care law.
The number of individual health insurance customers is expected to grow significantly in coming years. Employer-sponsored health coverage is eroding, and in 2014 the law will require nearly everyone to have insurance, adding millions to the ranks of the insured.
The stores are a reaction to the shift from wholesale to retail in insurance sales, says Paul Ginsburg, president of the Center for Studying Health System Change. In wholesale sales, employers were the buyers. Now insurers are recognizing that retail will be more important.
Insurers Highmark in Pennsylvania and BCBS of Florida have the largest retail presence to date, with several stores throughout those states.
In New York, UnitedHealthcare recently opened a 16,000-square-foot facility in the Flushing section of Queens; it operates a number of smaller storefronts as well.
As insurers see it, bricks-and-mortar stores are one more way, along with online and telephone support, to reach out to consumers. This is a third service option for people that like high-touch service, says Craig Thomas, senior vice president for consumer and government markets at BCBS of Florida.