Retail stores gain steam among health insurers

Even as the Affordable Care Act's marketplaces have led countless consumers to buy health coverage online, major insurers also are embracing the idea of operating physical stores that promise personalized customer service.

UnitedHealth, which has operated retail locations since 2011, planned to operate 16 stores during this year's Medicare open enrollment period, allowing the insurer to help seniors choose from the large array of plan choices many face. And Blues plans also are catching onto the trend, particularly in Rhode Island, the Providence Journal reports.

In fact, the country's smallest state is at the forefront of the movement toward retail-style service in the health insurance sector, Melissa Cummings, senior vice president and chief customer officer at Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island (BCBSRI), tells the newspaper. The insurer opened its first store in the state in 2013, and now has three, boasting 15,000 visitors in 2015 compared to just 9,300 the year before.

Only in a few other states, such as Florida, have retail health insurance stores really gained steam, Cummings says. Part of what's driving that trend, she adds, is competition from nontraditional healthcare players such as CVS. In fact, many health insurers now cover retail clinic visits, FierceHealthPayer has reported.

Some of the customer-friendly features in one Rhode Island location include machines that measure body mass and check hearing; a touchscreen monitor to allow customers to explore the BCBSRI website; a computer terminal that lets customers navigate the state's insurance exchange, HealthSource RI; and a room available for yoga, nutrition and financial wellness classes, according to the article.

The store's agents, which always include an individual fluent in Spanish, are available to help customers understand the myriad features of insurance plans--which many consumers struggle to comprehend. And with more and more people now in charge of picking their own plans, overall the in-store experience is "comforting for seniors and individuals," Cummings tells the Providence Journal.

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