November 11, 2012

Would you like sprinkles on your insurance policy?

At Harbison’s Columbiana Centre, customers can shop for sweaters, shoes, ice cream – and health insurance.

At Harbison’s Columbiana Centre, customers can shop for sweaters, shoes, ice cream – and health insurance.

Health insurance?

BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina recently opened a kiosk at the entrance to the mall’s food court, nestled between Kay’s Jewelers and Claire’s Boutique.

“It makes sense,” said Melayne McInnes, associate professor of health economics at USC’s Moore School of Business. “You want to be where your customers are and where you can reach them.”

Company representatives in the kiosk sell individual health plans and help seniors get signed up for Medicare.

In the past, many people typically purchased their health insurance through large company-offered group plans. Now, however, others will need to buy individual coverage to comply with the new federal health-care law – with its requirement that all Americans have health insurance.

The kiosk sales are another option for consumers, said Terry Peace, senior vice president for group and individual insurance for BlueCross, as the insurance company moves to sell more straight-to-consumer policies. “Some of it’s being driven by health-care reform,” she said.

The kiosk – managed by Amanda Butler – has five employees who are licensed to sell insurance in South Carolina and who have completed a 15-hour training program. In its first few weeks, the kiosk was drawing several dozen visitors a day.

While Blue Cross officials said they could not give out specific sales numbers for competitive reasons, they said traffic and sales at the kiosk are meeting their expectations, adding they consider the experiment a success.

The company plans to open a permanent store in the Midlands in the spring and possibly a second location in the Upstate next summer, officials said.

“We want (the store) to be a destination,” said Patti Embry-Tautenhan, spokeswoman for the insurance giant. The company envisions a store where customers can go to buy coverage, ask questions about their insurance plans, and attend classes and seminars.

“Our goal is to meet the consumers in their community,” Peace said.

The concept of selling health insurance at a retail outlet is innovative, the University of South Carolina’s McInnis said.

“This is getting out ahead of that individual mandate,” she said.

States are required to set up health exchanges to help address the needs of individuals who need to buy health insurance. But South Carolina, controlled politically by Republicans who oppose what they call “Obamacare,” has not made a move to set up its exchange. If the state doesn’t comply, the federal government will set up an exchange for the state.

The storefront by a commercial insurer puts a familiar face on health insurance for a group of people who are not used to buying individual policies, McInnis said.

“It makes sense to have some kind of a storefront presence, either on the Internet or a physical storefront space,” she said. “It’s a bit encouraging that some options are starting to be made more available.”

As the new health insurance law kicks in in the coming months, McInnis expects other insurers will follow closely how the retail model is working.

“BlueCross BlueShield is a huge player in the (S.C.) marketplace,” she said. “Others will watch.”

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