Health insurers expand marketing and retail as ACA deadline looms

December 17, 2013

Photo courtesy of Get Covered Illinois
Insurance companies are expanding their marketing efforts to reach more customers.

Ryan and Bethany Christie are healthy newlyweds in their 20s. For the time being, Ryan is a server at The Berghoff, a downtown restaurant, while he searches for a permanent job. Bethany’s delayed grad school and works as a nanny.

They live on a tight budget. And even though it could be cheaper to pay the penalty for not getting health insurance, they’d rather pay more to be covered.

“We’ve got friends who do that. Or set aside a little money just in case. But we’re definitely not risk takers in that sense. So it’s really expensive, but we plan on having children not too far off. We definitely want good health insurance for her,” Ryan Christie said.

An estimated 1.8 million people in Illinois are uninsured, but only 7,000 people in the state signed up in the first two months of enrollment under the Affordable Care Act.

In October, the Christies tried to sign up for health insurance off the federal health exchange. But like many others, they weren’t able to get through.

“My parents and a lot of the other people in my family really had negative views about Obamacare and thought it was the worst thing that could happen. I thought it probably won’t be great for them, but for me at least I’ll have some benefit,” Bethany Christie said. “But that’s not the case.”

The Christies are pretty sure they qualify for a government subsidy, but they’re still trying to navigate their eligibility and application. For now, Bethany is on her father’s insurance and Ryan’s signed up for coverage that’s pretty bare bones while they figure things out.

Insurance companies are expanding their retail and marketing efforts to lure individual consumers like the Christies.

Andrew Gallan is an assistant professor of marketing at DePaul University. He says insurers are having to expand their focus on individual consumers and not just group plans associated with workplaces.

“Individuals provide a lot more variety in terms of their ability to understand health, their literacy levels, their needs, their understandings, their ability to pay, their language. So that’s just a short list of all the variety that health insurers are beginning to see on the consumer side that they hadn’t seen before,” he said.

About 10 percent of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois’ customers were from the individual market. Kurt Kossen, Vice President of Retail Markets says that’s growing as the deadline to enroll under the federal law approaches.

“Starting in October, we’ve started to experience increased traffic in both our website and in the call center and into customer service and attendance at our community events. This is a very transformational time for the industry and individuals have a lot of questions,” Kossen said.

Kossen says the company has not only upped its telemarketing and internet efforts, but its marketing visibility.

“So from the marketing perspective, we want to be where people live, work, play and shop,” he said.

Kossen says the company has conducted 200 community seminars in the state, and it opened a retail store in North Riverside Park Mall, just outside of Chicago. It also has a mobile store that sets up at community events or outside grocery stores.

Professor Gallan says these strategies can make a difference to people getting insurance for the first time.

“Especially, younger people are going to be more comfortable on the Internet, and a variety of different sites. And trying to put together information, triangulate on which plan might be best for them. But there are significant numbers of people that need people to fill out forms, that need people to explain things in very basic English or even to translate into other languages. And these things are more easily and more efficiently done in person than they can be on the Internet,” Gallan said.

The Affordable Care Act has also put the pressure on insurance companies to deal more with bad publicity. The problems with the federal website and confusion over health premiums had some consumers backing away from the healthcare exchange.

Even in Illinois, the state ramped down its marketing efforts to avoid some of the negative associations. Now that things are running smoother, the state’s “Get Covered Illinois” program is boosting its outreach to get people enrolled by the December 23rd enrollment date.

Professor Gallan says that’s what the insurance companies are doing, too.

“People regardless of whether they attribute this to the government or health insurance companies, are going to have to be reassured that any particular website is 100 percent secure, that is efficient, that is going to provide them with the policy as well as protect them from being penalized in the future before they go on and start buying policies,” he said.

For the Christies, that customer service makes the difference.

“Health care is such a confusing topic right now that there’s no amount of research I can do to really understand if I’m getting a good deal somewhere,” Bethany Christie said. “So part of it is I have to trust what someone’s telling me because there’s so much out there.”

Susie An reports on business for WBEZ. Follow her @soosion.