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The number of Americans without health insurance is going up, and fast. By one estimate, it increases at the rate of 14,000 people a day. The growing number of uninsured is a problem, but also a marketing opportunity. In Florida, the nation's largest health-insurance company is having success with a new idea: retail stores that sell health insurance directly to consumers.
From Miami, NPR's Greg Allen reports.
GREG ALLEN: 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/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.
Mr. DOUG BARTEL (Blue Cross/Blue Shield): So you and your family may be going to Home Depot or to Barnes and Noble today, and you stop in a store to ask about a cell phone because you know that in the next six months, you're going to be looking for a new cell phone.
Well, it's the same concept here. You might be on your way to one of those big boxes or to the mall and say, let's stop in because you know what, I am thinking about retiring, and let's see what we're talking about.
Unidentified Woman: How did you hear about our store?
ALLEN: The name over the door says Florida Blue. It's in Pembroke Pines, not far from Fort Lauderdale. Throughout the day, a slow but steady stream of customers comes through the door: 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.
Mr. WILLIAM BOATENG (Student): Basically just a young guy looking for some type of coverage. Eventually, you're going to need coverage. And you know, you can't be young forever.
ALLEN: William Boateng is 28 year old, a student and part-time pharmacy worker who's 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 he got into a fight, hit his head, and had to be taken to the emergency room. He found himself with a bill for $10,000.
Mr. BOATENG: 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.
ALLEN: This is Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Florida's second retail store. They target a huge market: the estimated 4 million Floridians who currently have no health insurance. Doug Bartel says that number includes workers who increasingly are being forced to make their own decisions on health coverage.
Mr. BARTEL: The reality is with health-care costs being what they are, fewer and fewer employers are offering coverage. 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.
ALLEN: And once you're in the door, the customer representatives here 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.
Rick Curtis is with the Institute for Health Policy Solutions, a research group that studies the health-care industry. He 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.
Mr. RICK CURTIS (Institute for Health Policy Solutions): 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.
ALLEN: 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.
Mr. BARTEL: These stores are part of that overall retail transformation. 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.
ALLEN: Blue Cross/Blue Shield says its retail stores have been successful, and the company is making plans to open several more. Other Blue Cross/Blue Shield affiliates have been studying the concept and have already opened health-insurance stores in South Carolina, Alabama and Pennsylvania. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.