Health insurers increasingly are building and staffing brick-and-mortar retail centers to expand their membership base and enhance their brand image with the public.
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota is opening a mall store in Edina on Nov. 8, a week before the start of the 2015 Obamacare open-enrollment period. Eight employees will staff the store.
“When you look at the impact of the Affordable Care Act and all of the information out in the market today, consumers need that additional level of assistance now more than ever,” said Monica Engel, the Minnesota Blues' vice president of consumer markets.
Humana was one of the first to build into retail spaces several years ago. The insurer has 29 so-called guidance centers across the country in strip malls or Wal-Mart stores.
UnitedHealthcare opened its first benefits storefront in 2011 in Queens in New York City. Kaiser Permanente has nine Shop KP stores throughout Northern California. Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans have opened a number of retail stores. Florida Blues has 18 sales locations that also offer tai chi, yoga and smoking cessation courses. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina has seven stores, as well as seasonal mall kiosks. Highmark in Pittsburgh has 10 shops.
The retail store approach represents a major pivot in insurer tactics to expand membership, driven by the growth of the individual market under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Insurers are taking a page from Apple, which shocked the computing world by successfully opening its own stores.
“Health plans' entry point into creating membership was always through the employer,” said Joe Donlan, president of ConnectedHealth, which helps employers and consumers manage health insurance. “But as we're starting to see the individual insurance coverage really take off, what they are trying to do is provide other mechanisms to create relationships with the consumer.”
It's too early to tell if these shops are working out financially for insurers. But according to Ashish Kaura, a partner at consulting firm Strategy&, the move to retail is not about signing up people for health plans on the spot. “It's a means to establish a community presence,” said Kaura, who has studied insurers moving into the retail space. “I would think of it as a 70% branding and market strategy, and 30% sales strategy.”
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