New Jersey health insurers are finding new ways to connect with current and prospective customers, as they anticipate adding hundreds of thousands of enrollees in the coming years -- thanks to federal healthcare reform.
With 11 months to go until the major provisions of the 2010 Affordable Care Act take effect, insurers don't want to be caught unprepared for the expected onrush of enrollees. Among the strategies they've tried over the past year: brick-and-mortar stores, publicly available information kiosks, and websites offering updates on federal healthcare implementation.
While it’s too early to tell whether insurance agents will become a common sight in strip malls, companies have said they’re gaining insights with every move they make.
Perhaps the most visible effort is the retail store that Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield opened in Moorestown in September.
The company has judged the first four months a success, both in the number of customers who have visited to talk with the 10 agents and in the insights they've gained.
“We’ve been getting a lot of positive feedback, both by way of surveys and anecdotally,” said Kathleen Ruka, Horizon’s business owner for retail initiatives.
Ruka said the store is seeing a mix of individuals looking to buy insurance and current members seeking help.
“It isn’t an initiative that is only focused on existing members,” she said. “We’re trying to be the best resource for information for the community at large.”
Ruka said the company has been pleased with the consistent interest in the store through the winter, adding that there have been bursts of activity to receive flu shots and get information during the annual Medicare enrollment period.
While a major landmark for insurers will be October 1 -- when online health benefit exchanges are scheduled to launch as part of the ACA -- Ruka expects interest from individual customers well ahead of that date. In New Jersey, the exchange will serve as an online marketplace for individuals and small businesses to purchase insurance, as well as to learn about eligibility for insurance subsidies.
“I don’t think it’s going to wait until October 1,” Ruka said. “I think we’re going to see an emergence of people in preparation for the decisions that they’re going to be making starting on October 1.”
Horizon spokesman Thomas Vincz added that the store is a unique forum for face-to-face conversations. It is configured with both private and semiprivate areas, so agents can have detailed discussions with customers about their insurance needs.
“These meetings can last for hours,” Vincz said. “They can’t get those answers anywhere else.”
The store’s September launch was accompanied by a wave of advertising, aimed at familiarizing people with the idea that they can get information about their insurance in a store.
“We’re doing our best to get out on foot in the community and not just introduce who we are but try to introduce the concept,” Ruka said. “I think most people had an initial reaction that it didn’t make sense, until it did make sense. “
Whether the store will be replicated elsewhere in the state remains to be seen. Horizon has been gathering and evaluating data to see if it's learning more about customers through the store that through other channels, Ruka said.
The other major insurer that’s opened brick-and-mortar locations has taken a more demographically targeted approach. In October, UnitedHeathcare opened an Asian resource center in Edison that offers information in Chinese, Korean and South Asian languages, as well as an office in Lakewood that is part of its outreach to the Jewish community.
“UnitedHealthcare has been increasingly focused on engaging consumers more directly through office facilities designed for walk-in consultation and direct enrollment in Medicaid and Medicare,” company officials said in an October statement announcing the Lakewood office, which is open to all residents.
Information both about customers and for customers is central to another retail effort. AmeriHealth New Jersey dipped its toe into retail by setting up information kiosks at two New Jersey malls in December.
AmeriHealth senior vice president of sales and marketing Mike Munoz said the computer screens at the Menlo Park in Edison and Newport Centre Mall in Jersey City were part of a broader effort to provide more information to the public about the company’s plans.
“In the same way they go to an ATM today, an individual would be able to do the same to purchase insurance,” Munoz said.
In addition, AmeriHealth is seeking to provide members with information on what they can do to improve their health, “to understand the impact of their personal responsibility on what the cost of healthcare will be,” Munoz said. The company has been taking the same approach with employers that have purchased group insurance.
While Munoz said it’s too early to tell the effect of installing the kiosks, the company is sure that it will be using the Internet to better target potential customers. AmeriHealth is planning to have a link on its sites to all of the insurance plans offered through the state’s health benefit exchange.
Ultimately, information kiosks could be deployed in pharmacies, hospitals, gyms, and other locations where people are seeking healthcare information.
“It’s a test, it’s an evolving strategy,” Munoz said, adding that AmeriHealth doesn’t currently see retail insurance stores being profitable, at least without tying the service to other functions like a doctor’s office.
“It’s a huge investment that’s being made in brick-and-mortar, and unless you tie it to something that’s more meaningful, I don’t really see the return on investment being there,” Munoz said.
The kiosk guides users through a series of screens, providing information on various health problems, from the impact of smoking on personal health and life expectancy to the symptoms and effects of concussions.
Even insurance companies that don’t target individual customers are preparing for new challenges as a result of the ACA. These include Cigna, which largely focuses on large-employer group health plans in the state.
Cigna New Jersey president and general manager Charlie Catalano said one particular group of employers has been examining how the law will effect them: companies that offer employees limited-benefit plans that don’t meet the standards of the essential health benefits outlined by the federal government. Employers will be penalized for not offering insurance that meets these standards.
“They haven’t said they’re going to buy” more expensive plans, Catalano said. “But they want to look at that.”
Cigna has also increased the amount of information it shares with employers about the implementation of the ACA, including a corporatesite.
“This is a very complicated law and some of the complications continue to come out to us,” Catalano said.