The next big thing in health insurance may be on Roosevelt Avenue in Queens, New York.
There, tucked between a drugstore and a mobile phone center, is the storefront where UnitedHealth Group Inc. (UNH) is learning to sell health insurance to consumers the way other companies sell shoes, office supplies or iPhones.
The experiment by UnitedHealth, the biggest U.S. medical insurer, is designed to help the company compete in anticipation of sweeping changes under the new health-care law. By 2014, as many as 85 million consumers, representing $600 billion in purchasing power, may be shopping for their own health care on public and private exchanges, according to a November report from Oliver Wyman, a New York-based management consulting firm. To get ready, insurance providers are striving to bolster their reputations for customer service.
“Customers want to bring the conversation to where they are,” said Christopher Law, a national vice-president at UnitedHealth who oversees the insurer’s retail site. “Why can’t it be more like a bank, where you can go in and have tellers helping you out?”
So far, the trend toward retail health insurance outlets is in its infancy, though growing. The year-old Queens storefront is one of eight opened in the U.S. by Minnetonka, Minnesota-based UnitedHealth, joining outlets in Manhattan, Philadelphia and the Los Angeles area. Late last year, the company also decided to make permanent 16 temporary centers it had opened in malls from Las Vegas to Houston to Palm Beach, Florida.
UnitedHealth was expected to earn $5.51 billion in net income last year on sales of $110 billion, according to the average of 13 analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg. The company gained 7 percent in New York trading in 2012, compared with a 4.5 percent increase for the S&P Managed Care Index. Its shares rose less than 1 percent to close at $52.09.
In Pennsylvania, Highmark Inc. has opened nine stores, while Florida’s Blue Cross Blue Shield plan has 11, some paired with health clinics where members can also obtain medical care.
Whether the locations succeed in luring sizable new business will depend on their ability to provide useful services, rather than serve as marketing gimmicks, said Marc Pierce, the founder of Stonegate Advisors, a Chicago-based firm that advises health plans on retail strategy.
Customers may get premium discounts if they attend in-store wellness programs, he said. Or insurers can offer experts to navigate the complexities of the health law, providing a health-care version of the “Genius Bar” at Apple Inc. (AAPL)’s retail outlets.
“If you can truly demonstrate you’ve got a ‘Genius Bar’ of health care, where people can get answers to questions that they couldn’t get anywhere else,” Pierce said, “then you can see it taking off.”
The Queens storefront occupies 16,000 square feet in a busy commercial district in the New York borough’s Flushing section. Most of its 3,200 monthly visitors are UnitedHealth members seeking help with private plans or government-sponsored Medicare and Medicaid coverage, Law said. Customers can buy a medical plan, check their blood pressure and plop the kids in front of the office’s Xbox while getting advice on doctors, healthy cooking and drug interactions.
For Yun Yuen Chen, 73, a retiree enrolled in a UnitedHealth Medicare plan, the one-on-one attention she received recently at the storefront was well worth the time spent, she said. Chen said she went there knowing it has employees who speak Chinese to get help with a hospital bill for her husband’s appendicitis.
“We got a bill that said we owed some money and we wanted to make sure it was the money we were supposed to be paying,” she said in an interview.
A few of the stores opened before the federal Affordable Care Act, largely to cater to recipients of Medicare, the U.S. health plan for the elderly and disabled. Still, the 2010 law has been an added push, said Matt Fidler, the vice-president of consumerism and retail marketing at Pittsburgh-based Highmark. The act may expand coverage to more than 30 million Americans, many buying for themselves using online marketplaces set to debut later this year.
Employers such as Sears Holding Corp. (SHLD) have taken similar steps, announcing they’ll shift workers to private exchanges where they can select their own insurance and Sears will help pay for it. The aging U.S. population also means more Americans joining Medicare, which gives seniors the option of choosing private plans run by companies like UnitedHealth or Louisville, Kentucky-based Humana Inc. (HUM)
“When you see a massive category shift like we’re going to see with reform, the first movers, the first ones out of the gate, they are the ones deemed the most knowledgeable and credible,” Fidler said in a telephone interview. “We want to be the one people recommend to their friends and family.”
It’s a shift for insurers that have traditionally won by focusing on an audience as small as one: the business owner or human-resource chief who may choose coverage for an entire workforce.
Brick-and-mortar is only part of the strategy. In April, UnitedHealth debuted a series of wellness-themed shows online, featuring celebrities including Dr. Mehmet Oz and nutritionist Joy Bauer. In September, Humana announced a program to give Wal-Mart shoppers a discount on healthy foods. Indianapolis-based WellPoint Inc. (WLP), the second-biggest insurer, said it would spend more than $50 million on a branding campaign starting in 2012.
“You’re going to have to market in a more retail environment, something that this industry hasn’t had to do historically,” WellPoint Chief Financial Officer Wayne DeVeydt told investors at a Sept. 10 conference. “Branding is going to become even more relevant.”
Catering to local Asian-American populations, UnitedHealth’s Queens store offers help in eight languages and Chinese dialects. There are iPad stations offering self-guided tours of benefit plans, a private office to discuss medical claims and a wellness room where an audiologist can fit hearing aids. The store hums with the sound of an automated blood-pressure cuff, part of a “biometric station” where members can check their vital signs.
Among the store’s 30 employees are five social workers who help with services like a New York State program that subsidizes prescription drugs for seniors. In Hurricane Sandy’s wake, employees helped replace lost medications and food stamps, Law said. Upstairs is a classroom the company opens up for wellness programs and local community groups.
While retail sales are “the centerpiece,” UnitedHealth is doing more than just peddling insurance, Law said. “You have to wrap it around all of these other programs for the community. We’re building a long-term relationship. Our customers know us by name.”
Through October, the store had enrolled about 4,200 people, just a sliver of the 36.5 million members in the carrier’s medical plans. Retail centers may never rival Internet or phone sales for UnitedHealth, said Tom Paul, the carrier’s chief consumer officer. Still, the storefronts are popular with groups that prefer more face-to-face attention, like Medicare members, he said. And they keep existing customers happy.
“We understand that each individual customer has an individual set of needs and we need to simplify and personalize the system,” he said in a phone interview. “What we’re trying to do is recognize that the responsibility for consumers is only continuing to grow.”
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