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Shopping for health insurance goes retro

Between picking up groceries and stopping by the dry cleaner, your next trip to the shopping center could include a visit to the health insurance store.

As health insurers look for ways to reach individual customers, some are going back to basics: brick-and-mortar retail outlets.

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Some health insurance companies are moving into malls.Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida and Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield in Pennsylvania are leading the pack.

  • Ten Florida Blue Centers now serve customers in the Sunshine State.
  • Highmark opened its ninth Highmark Direct store in Pennsylvania in August.
  • UnitedHealthcare opened its first large store, a 16,000-square-foot center in the Queens borough of New York, in November 2011.

The trend is picking up steam as health insurers prepare for 2014, when some 30 million uninsured Americans will hit the health insurance market. That's when almost everyone will be required to have health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

Personalizing health insurance

The stores give you a chance to talk to someone face-to-face as you search for a health plan.

"We believed that because health insurance is a complex purchase, that individuals may feel more comfortable talking with a Highmark representative in person," says Matt Fidler, Highmark's vice president of consumerism and retail marketing.

The main objective of the Highmark stores is to sell insurance, Fidler says. But the stores also provide customer support, and the newest store in Erie, Penn., offers health coaching. Highmark plan members can meet with a health coach to learn more about wellness programs and get support for treatment decisions.

Besides selling health plans, Florida Blue Centers host workshops that include free health screenings, smoking-cessation classes, walking clubs, fitness classes, Weight Watchers meetings and even free massages. The Pensacola center includes a primary care clinic.

Although the retail trend is growing, the concept isn't new. UnitedHealthcare opened a small storefront in Chinatown in New York in 1994 and in 2002 opened a support center for Medicare beneficiaries in New York City's Flushing neighborhood. In 2009, the company opened a storefront in Alahambra, Calif., a one-stop shop featuring services targeted to Chinese-American Medicare beneficiaries.

The insurer's newest store in Queens is the largest and most comprehensive health insurance retail outlet yet. The store, which focuses on serving the Asian-American community, will be a model for future centers. In addition to selling health plans, the staff helps customers apply for more than 15 types of state and federal social service programs. The center also provides a health-screening kiosk and hosts free health education seminars on such topics as nutrition and exercise, disease management and financial planning.

Reform adds a new dimension

Highmark opened its first store in Pennsylvania in early 2009, before Congress passed the Affordable Care Act.

"We believed that a store strategy would help support our overall goal of helping consumers better understand and use their health insurance," Fidler says.

He says it's hard to predict how health care reform laws will impact health insurance retail markets.

Rather than building its own stores, Aetna chose to work with an established retailer. The insurer markets high-deductible health plans through Costco to warehouse store members. Store employees hand out brochures, and shoppers can go online or call to sign up for the plans. The company is working with Costco in nine states -- Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia -- and plans to expand to others later this year.

"Our arrangement with Costco is a way for us to enter the retail market with a best-in-class retailer, while still monitoring this trend," says Barbara DeMaio, head of individual business for Aetna.

Whether you're shopping in a store, online or through a broker, here are important tips for buying individual health insurance.

More from Barbara Marquand here

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