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N.C. health insurer opens first retail store

By Emery P. Dalesio
Associated Press

MORRISVILLE Just down the street from the Target and Gander Mountain big-box stores and between a nail salon and dental office, North Carolina’s largest health insurer opened its first retail store.

It has some exercise offerings – step aerobics classes and stationary bike workouts – but for now, its main product is providing in-person information about changes coming in October with the health insurance overhaul law.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina is opening half a dozen of these offices in strip malls statewide to first educate and then, starting in October, enroll consumers shopping for coverage because of the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare.” Blue Cross affiliates in Florida and Pennsylvania have had similar stores open for years.

The North Carolina company also hauls an air-conditioned showroom trailer to fairs and farmers markets to reach out to the estimated 600,000 people who will be newly shopping for individual policies – some of them subsidized by the government for consumers who might have trouble affording a policy.

Many of the individual policies will be sold on a statewide Internet marketplace designed to make buying coverage comparable to finding a hotel room or rental car.

As people who have been uninsured or had their coverage provided by employers start shopping around, BCBSNC is reaching out like never before to expand on its 375,000 insurance policies for individuals, marketing director Bruce Allen said.

Meetings around country

The goal is explaining the federal law, which requires everyone to have coverage or pay a fine and subsidizes many middle-class consumers who might otherwise not be able to afford policies on their own. The law also prohibits insurers from rejecting customers who have pre-existing health conditions.

“There’s a big segment of the population that really wants to talk to someone face to face about it,” Allen said. “It’s a new market that’s entering that doesn’t have health insurance, never had it, and really needs kind of that step-by-step walk-through to understand a really critical decision for them to make.”

Across the country, Blue Cross companies are among the health insurers most aggressive in reaching out to build consumer trust and capture their spending on policies. Spots for a broad new print, television and online advertising campaign are multiplying.

Meetings with civic organizations, community groups and religious institutions are taking place from Vermont to Texas. The North Carolina company has rented movie theaters and invited guests to watch first-run films, with the addition of a 15-minute ad explaining the Affordable Care Act and laptop-ready staffers in the lobby offering individual guidance on the law.

Ahead of the game

Blue Cross Blue Shield companies already are some of the country’s biggest sellers of health insurance policies for individuals.

“For other insurers, the majority of their experience is in the employer-provided market, so they don’t know the individual market as well and are unsure whether this will be profitable, so they’re moving very carefully,” said David Ridley, director of the health sector management program at Duke University’s Fuqua business school.

“In contrast, Blue Cross Blue Shield – with their experience in the individual market, its experience interacting with government as the insurer of last resort – is moving much more aggressively and creatively.”

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