Look to auto insurance for health payers' consumer-centric future

Jim O'Neil
If you watch television, you know all about car insurance commercials. You can probably even quickly identify the various mascots for the companies--the ubiquitous cavemen, the gecko, the "mayhem" guy (playing a blind spot, teenage girl, referee making a bad call, among others), the quirky sales agent working in a store that appears to be in some version of Heaven, that actor who played the President on "24." I could go on, but then I'd be admitting how much TV I actually watch. Suffice it to say, unless you live under a rock--which, incidentally, was the subject of one said commercial--you know what I'm talking about.

What does this have to do with health insurance? While listening to a recent America's Health Insurance Plans-sponsored webinar, I was intrigued by something. Eugene Sayan, founder and chief exec at Softheon, suggested that the reform law will transform the health insurance market to become like that of car insurance. Consumers will be able to shop online to compare health plan prices, and insurance companies will continually decrease costs and enhance incentives to remain competitive. "They will try to one-up each other," said Sayan. My curiosity was piqued, particularly since I wrote just last week about the importance of competition among insurers. So it should come as no surprise that I would welcome such a transformation throughout the health insurance marketplace.

After 2014, when the individual mandate is in effect, insurers will have to adjust their practices to market directly to consumers. That could mean they use commercials, complete with outlandish mascots and melodic jingles, to sell their plans to the public. At the first sign the business-to-consumer marketing model is attracting more consumers, you can bet other insurers will get on board.

Next thing you know, we'll be inundated with information and, for the first time in the history of U.S. health insurance, consumers might be able to start negotiating with their insurance company for better prices and/or coverage. Once the public is empowered with knowledge, anything can happen.

Insurers, therefore, should be prepared for an onslaught of questions, requests for more information, and comparisons among their competitors. To stay alive and competitive, insurers will have to adapt their plans to the consumers' needs and successfully market those plans to convince the public their product is superior to others--all while keeping in mind that current consumer shopping habits don't necessarily indicate how they will shop in the future, Sayan said. He predicts, for example, that consumers will shop online more frequently for health insurance, meaning that payers will have to brand themselves across all platforms.

These are challenging times for health insurance companies. Some may lose the battle to win consumers, but the ones that survive will adapt their policies and practices, respond to consumer behavior and needs, and improve their coverage options while maintaining costs in this new paradigm of health insurance.

And who knows? Maybe in five or 10 years from now, we'll be singing the catchy jingles of an Aetna or UnitedHealth commercial and laughing at their mascots doing silly things in commercials. - Dina (@HealthPayer)