Soon millions of people will shop for health insurance on their own.
The health care overhaul requires nearly everyone to have health insurance, after all, and employer coverage has been slowly, steadily declining.
One way that some health insurers are angling to appeal to millions of new insurance shoppers by opening retail stores where people can buy a policy, check on an existing claim, maybe even take a class in healthy cooking or yoga. Highmark in Pennsylvania and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida are the two insurers that have made the biggest commitment to retail, each with several stores statewide.
Does this make online insurance sellers anxious that insurers may bigfoot their customers and cut into their bottom line? Not at all.
"The better the experience that people have shopping for health insurance, that's good," says Sam Gibbs, president of the government systems business for ehealthinsurance.com. "These retail outlets could potentially help all these people to learn about buying insurance."
The way Gibbs sees it, people just aren't yet comfortable buying a health plan the way they buy other consumer products, and retail stores might help move the needle and make it seem more routine.
Back in 2005, Costco, for instance, tested health insurance sales with individual policies in Southern California. Now the members-only retailer offers high-deductible plans from Aetna in eight states.
Besides, people are often looking for different experiences when they shop online versus at a store. At retail stores they can ask questions and get lots of one-on-one attention. But when they're ready to buy, they may go online where prices may be slightly cheaper, he says.
In any case, there's going to be plenty of business to go around. "They'll be able to enroll a certain number of people [in retail stores], but they're not going to be able to handle the mass volume [of insurance shoppers]," says Gibbs.