Crystal Rose smiles broadly as she hands a complimentary bag to Joan Yurczak during the health fair hosted by Florida Blue Cross/Blue Shield on Saturday at their retail office in Coconut Point mall. / Terry Allen Williams/news-press.com
Can buying health insurance be like shopping for the latest electronics gadget?
Florida Blue (formerly Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida) believes it can and, over the last five years, has invested millions building almost a dozen large, modern retail “shops” throughout the state, including its latest, at Coconut Point mall in Estero.
Forget stuffy insurance offices in high-rises or sterile office parks. Health insurance has come to the neighborhood mall.
Customers can browse health plans, speak to sales representatives about different insurance policies and get detailed health screenings, all under the same roof.
The burgeoning individual policy market, which will get a boost from insurance-buying requirements in 2014, is the driver of this strategy, company officials say. For now, though, only Florida Blue and a few other U.S. providers are trying this customer-friendly, bricks-and-mortar approach.
“This started well before health reform was a glimmer in anyone’s eye,” said Craig Thomas, Florida Blue’s senior vice president for government and consumer markets. “More and more, small businesses were not providing employer-based health coverage. More and more, people were out there buying their own plans.”
A recent survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute seems to bear that out: It found U.S. employer health benefits dropped from 60.4 percent in 2009 to 55.8 percent in April 2011.
The drop has been even more sharp in Southwest Florida.
Lee Memorial Health System, which operates about 95 percent of Lee County’s hospital beds, has seen its share of patients with private health plans — most are likely employer-based — go from more than 30 percent in 2007 to about 20 percent today.
Industry consulting firm Oliver Wyman estimates the U.S. market for individual insurance policies will total up to 100 million shoppers by 2020 with $500 billion in buying power.
Florida Blue, the largest health insurer in Florida, has about 900,000 customers in the individual insurance market. The company estimates that number could grow to 3 million by 2017, Thomas said.
“Everyone loves to hate insurers,” said Alwyn Cassil of the Washington-based Center for Studying Health System Change. “Very clearly a big piece of this is sales, but clearly another piece of this is public service.”
Bonita Springs retiree Dominic Trentadue wandered into the Estero store recently out of curiosity, to look over policies and take a balance test from the in-store nurse.
Trentadue, 83, said he likes his Medicare supplement plan, but may be willing to switch to a Florida Blue policy. He left the store with a blue bag full of documents and brochures.
“It’s great marketing,” he said. “I think it’s great because a lot of people don’t know how to understand all this.”
Experts say it’s too soon to know if this concept will take off and how it will weather the still-unfolding federal health reform law.
Highmark Blue Shield has recently opened stores in parts of Pennsylvania, and United Healthcare has new outlets in New York and New Jersey.
“This is not widespread,” Cassil said. “I would say Blue Cross Blue Shield (Florida Blue) is kind of in the vanguard with this.”
One veteran insurance broker took the idea and ran with it in Chicago.
Jordan Wishner opened The Health Insurance Shoppe in 2009 after years of selling policies to companies.
Unlike the company-specific shops run by Florida Blue and others, Wishner offers policies from a variety of insurers: United Healthcare, Aetna, BlueCross BlueShield of Illinois, and so on.
Wishner, who makes a commission on every policy sold, said he gets up to 15 walk-ins and 20 phone inquiries per week.
They tend to be customers who have trouble dealing with the complicated health insurance market, Wishner said. Buying policies online or over the phone can be frustrating, he said, especially for older policy seekers.
“I navigate. I guess that’s the best word for it,” Wishner said. “When you go online you’re not talking to anyone. You come to me, it’s one person.”
One of the nation’s leading online insurance providers believes the retail model is a good idea.
San Francisco-based eHealthInsurance.com has sold 3 million policies in all 50 states. The company expects the nationwide individual market to expand by 15 million once the health law’s mandate takes effect.
Most people are largely unaware of the individual health insurance market, said spokesman Nate Purpura.
“So, from our perspective these retail outlets will create a lot of visibility and credibility for individually sold policies,” Purpura said in an email. “We’re also confident that people who like to comparison shop may see these stands, feel better about the products, and still decide to go home and comparison shop online.”
An airy feel
The Florida Blue Center at the Coconut Point shopping center in Estero has more of a modern, airy feel than that of a typical insurance office. A concierge desk greets customers, who can retreat with an agent into one of the soundproof glass offices if they want to talk about policies.
Children tagging along with parents can go to a play area with a Nintendo Wii video game system.
Registered nurses help provide free health screenings for customers. One merely has to step on a special scale that measures height, weight, body fat and, by extension, provide their body mass index.
Twice a month, the store offers free yoga classes, and it regularly hosts health-related community events, including Medicare education sessions (no sales pitches, the company insists).
“It’s about service, and we want people to feel comfortable asking questions,” said Meredith Viskovic, director of the center. “People have been very satisfied with coming into this center.”
The company won’t say how many walk-ins it gets any given week or how many millions it has invested in the new buildings and staff. The 5,000-square-foot Estero store is newly built and employs 13 full-time staffers.
Under the new federal health law, insurance companies may only use 20 percent of their revenue for administrative purposes, including building new offices.
For now, Florida Blue executives believe they have hit on a winning formula.
“Basically what a lot of consumers told us (about insurance) is it’s important, it’s emotional and it’s complicated,” said Thomas, the Florida Blue senior vice president. “And, boy, if I can go in a Florida Blue center to help me out, that’s huge. And by the way, nobody else provides it.”