Health Insurance—Coming To a Mall Near You

Les Masterson, for HealthLeaders Media, December 31, 2008

After spending countless hours at the mall over the past month, you probably don't want to even think about those centers of commerce and aggravation, but shopping malls could play a role in the future of health plans.

There could be a day in the near future when a trip to the mall would include a list like this:

  • Buy milk and eggs at Piggly Wiggly
  • Purchase socks at Target
  • Ask about deductibles and health savings accounts at the health insurer

Health insurers are looking beyond their office complexes and moving into retail spaces as a way to connect with members and prospective ones. Pittsburgh-based health insurer Highmark Inc. announced last week that it will open retail spaces in January in two Pennsylvania locations, Mechanicsburg and suburban Pittsburgh.

Called Highmark Direct, the two pilot stores will help individual policy shoppers, small business owners looking to compare plans, seniors locating supplemental insurance, and the uninsured getting information about public programs.

The move into retail marketing channels might seem strange at first blush, but it is a natural progression in consumer-driven health. If health plans want members to act more like consumers, insurers may have to meet shoppers in that consumer environment.

Studies show that health insurers need to try something new because Web portals and incoming call centers are not enough to educate consumers about healthcare decisions. Hence, the trip to the shopping center.

Highmark Direct is not the insurer's first foray into retail. The Pennsylvania insurer has six Member Service locations that help members with questions about their plans.

While Highmark Direct will focus mainly on helping non-members, Steven Nelson, vice president of consumerism and retail marketing at Highmark, says the stores will also offer education programs and assist current members with core services.

Nelson says Highmark Direct will answer questions, such as what's an HMO, what's a PPO, how do deductibles work, and what are health savings accounts.

Highmark's new stores will include services found in retail spaces, such as self-service kiosks, as well as a video conference room that will allow consumers to speak with a call center representative to answer specific questions.

Nelson says the two Highmark Direct stores are a way for the insurer to learn more about consumer engagement. The storefronts are part of a larger movement at Highmark to improve member touch points, such as call centers, consumer relationship marketing techniques, and member portals and Web sites.

If these stores are successful in educating and engaging prospective and current members, one wonders how long it will take before health insurers find other ways to use retail spaces. One possibility is implementing disease management programs in the stores. Rather than wait for claims data from providers to find at-risk members, health insurers could collect biometric data at retail spaces and better keep track of patients. The retail spaces could even take the form of retail clinics.

Imagine how these services could improve disease management programs and provide a more complete picture of the individual member than claims data can offer.

As this example shows, retail spaces could become more than places to retain and acquire members. The possibilities are endless, but the ultimate question will be whether those advantages are cost-effective enough to offset a mall storefront.

Les Masterson is senior editor of Health Plan Insider. He can be reached at
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