Shopping For Health Insurance? Try The Mall

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida's store in Pembroke Pines draws a variety of customers. i i

hide captionThe Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida store in Pembroke Pines draws a variety of customers, many of whom don't currently have health insurance.

Greg Allen/NPR
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida's store in Pembroke Pines draws a variety of customers.

The Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida store in Pembroke Pines draws a variety of customers, many of whom don't currently have health insurance.

Greg Allen/NPR

As the number of Americans without health insurance grows, the nation's largest health insurance company is having success in Florida with a new idea: retail stores that sell insurance directly to consumers.

From the outside, you might mistake it for a cell phone store. It's a friendly looking storefront in a new shopping plaza, deep in the South Florida suburbs. Inside, there aren't cell phones for sale, but health coverage.

Doug Bartel, with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida, says the marketing plan for retail health coverage is not that different from cell phones. The first key: Put the stores in locations with good foot traffic.

In Pembroke Pines, not far from Fort Lauderdale, a slow but steady stream of customers comes through the door at the Florida Blue store: retirees, the self-employed, small business owners, young people just starting their careers. Most have one thing in common: They currently have no health coverage.

"Basically, I'm just a young guy looking for some type of coverage. Eventually, you're going to need coverage. And, you can't be young forever," William Boateng says. The 28-year-old student and part-time pharmacy worker is studying to become a physician's assistant. He came in to buy health coverage. The plan he chose costs about $150 a month and includes full coverage of visits to the emergency room.

That became important to him because of what happened to a friend. Boateng says his friend got into a fight, hit his head and had to be taken to the emergency room. The friend found himself with a bill for $10,000.

"All of a sudden, a 20-something-year-old individual (who) had very minimal debt now has accrued a lot of debt that he's still liable and responsible for. And I just didn't want to have that uncertainty under my belt," Boateng says.

Marketing To The Uninsured

This is Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida's second retail store. They target a huge market: the estimated 4 million Floridians who currently have no health insurance. Bartel says that number includes workers who increasingly are being forced to make their own decisions on health coverage.

"The reality is with health care costs being what they are, fewer and fewer employers are offering coverage," he says. "So, you might not be offered health insurance from your work, or you might be given an allowance, so to speak, where you're given a couple hundred dollars a month, but it's your choice to go do with that money what you want."

And once you're in the door, the customer representatives have an array of coverage plans to choose from: blue chip plans with full hospitalization, doctors' visits and catastrophic health coverage, down to medical discount cards at $20 per month.

Limits To Low-Cost Plans?

Rick Curtis, president of the Institute for Health Policy Solutions, a research group that studies the health care industry, notes that retail stores duplicate services already available by phone or on the Web. And he's leery of low-cost plans that offer limited coverage.

"I'm concerned that some people who get that kind of coverage — or very limited, just preventive and primary care and no catastrophic coverage — don't really understand the limits of what they're getting," Curtis says.

A 'Retail Transformation'

Bartel says there's something larger going on here: a retail transformation of the health care industry. Consumers now choose their own storefront MRI centers and are comfortable going to health clinics in Wal-Marts.

"These stores are part of that overall retail transformation," Bartel says. "So, you're seeing increased transparency. You're seeing more interactive stuff on the Web. People want to purchase health insurance in a variety of different ways. Maybe you're comfortable online, maybe you want to talk to someone in person, or maybe you want to come into a store."

Blue Cross and Blue Shield says its retail stores have been successful, and the company is making plans to open several more. Other Blue Cross and Blue Shield affiliates have been studying the concept and have already opened health insurance stores in South Carolina, Alabama and Pennsylvania

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