May 03, 2012

Newark, N.J.-based health insurer Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey announced yesterday that it will open a retail center in Moorestown, N.J. I reached out to the company's VP of consumer and senior markets, Joseph Albano, and asked where Horizon sees itself in the larger picture of health insurers embracing retail-style strategies.

Insurance & Technology: Why a retail store?

Joseph Albano: With the advent of consumer-directed healthcare plans and plans that require employees to make more decisions about their healthcare because they had more skin in the game financially, we as the industry needed to help members with those decisions. Those discussions have kind of been going on over the past couple years — then when you layer healthcare reform on top of that and its expected influx of individual customers in the market, it seems like a retail setting was an ideal place to connect.

I&T: Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida has been in the news recently for its retail locations. What about the retail strategy is so attractive to the Blues?

JA: I think the Blues bring a different perspective to the need for a retail location. We, like others in the industry, have been focused on the wholesale side of the industry, the group customer, which is how health insurance traditionally has been sold.

I&T: Typically, especially at I&T, which focuses on technology, when insurers talk about wanted to make a deeper connection with customers they're talking about mobile or social media initiatives. Where does technology fit in to your strategy around policyholder enablement?

JA: In just doing our normal survey work with customers, the data have told us that customers generally like our web tools and services we put out on the portals, but they don’t always understand how to navigate them. So, the thinking in the retail setting is to provide those tools and those resources for people, along with someone who can help them understand the tools, the better route to get to the outcome that they're after and better ways to access our technology to have a better experience.

I&T: So this isn't meant to replace technologies, but represents a multichannel approach to easing health insurance?

JA: The tools and technology are great, but we have to complement them with the personal touch. A more informed user of our benefit programs is going to be a customer who understands their benefit program better and understand things that those of us in the industry take for granted, like the benefits of an in-network vs. out-of-network doctor. We can help educate people about why those concepts are important and use technology to help show that, in ways like enhancing our provider directory tools so that people with a history of using out-of-network doctors can see our vast network and understand why staying in net is important.

I&T: Health insurers are seemingly very ahead of the curve on bringing retail-like innovations to the insurance industry. Why is there such admiration there?

JA: We've seen retailers, for example, make self-service extremely helpful and easy, and that's attracted the public to them and we're tracking that in our own business. But because of the complexity we think the retail setting with real-life people that can make a connection is important. I don’t think we could ever reach a time when you strip out the people from the health insurance equation. We're New Jersey's largest and oldest insurer, and our local presence means something there.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nathan Golia is senior editor of Insurance & Technology. He joined the publication in 2010 as associate editor and covers all aspects of the nexus between insurance and information technology, including mobility, ...