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Health insurance storefronts proving durableRetail push seen as helpful, but slowing down

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A Capital BlueCross storefront
A Capital BlueCross storefront - (Photo / )

Two Pennsylvania insurance companies that ventured into retail storefronts in recent years say their initiatives continue to show benefits to consumers but expansion plans are on hold, at least through 2019.

Highmark Direct retail stores and Capital BlueCross Health and Wellness Centers continue to show positive results, especially for consumers who use the retail outlets to understand insurance options or to develop healthy lifestyles through counseling and services offered by the stores, company representatives said.

Neither company would offer sales figures for their stores but said that the efforts have been successful enough to continue.

“We don’t share sales figures from the stores, as that is proprietary,” Leilyn Perri, with the corporate communications office of Pittsburgh-based Highmark Health, said in an emailed response to questions.

Highmark, which has had stores since 2009, has 11 retail shops – with two in the Lehigh Valley and three in the Harrisburg-Lancaster area – and does not have immediate plans to add to that mix. At one point, the company had as many as 13 stores. Perri said two stores closed after Highmark took over the Northeast PA BlueCross BlueShield plan a few years ago because “there was not enough volume at the time to justify keeping them open.”

“We are always evaluating the stores and determining if there is a need for more,” Perri said. “Right now, this seems to be the right number.”

At Capital BlueCross, the two “Capital Blue to You” stores have shown enough promise that company officials are looking at adding a third storefront, perhaps in 2020, said Dave Skerpon, Capital BlueCross’ senior vice president for enterprise marketing and consumer experience. The Susquehanna Township-based company has a Lehigh Valley store on Center Valley Parkway in Center Valley and a store at Hampden Marketplace on Marketplace Way in Hampden Township. It is eyeing the Reading and Lancaster areas for a possible third store, Skerpon said.

Capital Blue, too, would not provide sales figures. But the two stores have been steadily increasing foot traffic, with an average of about 3,000 people per month coming through the stores, said Mike Crnovic, director of retail services for the insurer. During open-enrollment season, the traffic is heaviest, especially because the company expands hours to seven days per week, he added. The Hampden store, which opened in 2015, employs eight and Saucon Valley, which opened three years earlier, employs nine.

Capital Blue has worked to make the stores accessible as community centers, where health-related events and services are available for free to consumer members and businesses, Skerpon said. For a nominal fee, non-members have access to services such as fitness classes. The classes are popular and often have waiting lists, Crnovic said.

In addition, Healthy You Cafes in the stores offer nutritional food options and nutrition advice. The idea is to have a one-stop shop for health needs. Blood-pressure checks, custom wellness plans and other services also are available, and consumers and small-business owners can consult with store employees about the best insurance options or doctors for specific care.

ACA spurred retail push

One motivation for retail stores that have popped up in other markets and states, as well, was the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. The stores were seen as a way to help consumers and businesses navigate complex insurance options, while promoting healthy lifestyles. Since the act’s passage, a reverse trend has accelerated, with large national retailers seeking ways to enter traditional health care markets.

“If retail is getting into health care, why not health care into retail? Amazon and Walmart aren’t eyeing disruptive innovation to health care as a key strategic move in isolation; the consumer (sometimes the patient, sometimes the employer) is gaining the power and demanding convenience,” Patrick Michael Plummer, a business professor at Penn State University – Mont Alto, said in an email. “This is the motivating factor, and why retailers believe they have an opening. That’s my opinion on why insurers are testing these retail waters.”

However, he doesn’t necessarily think that insurance-owned storefronts will remain a growing trend.

The lack of “expansion plans means insufficient profitability in this area,” he said. “I can’t imagine these retail shops are too busy except during open enrollment. They’ll likely need to add retail services to truly satisfy a consumer’s ‘convenience’ need and make a profit.”

Overall in 2019, Plummer said he expects to see a continuation of the “bigger is better” mentality among insurers and hospitals/health systems, which likely will involve small steps involving more mergers with independent doctors and practices.

Harrisburg is not likely to see major changes “at the same level that we saw over last 18 months,” he added. “But size – and the perceived negotiating leverage that size potentially provides – will remain at the forefront.”

He also doesn’t expect much movement on the national level with health care initiatives, even though Democrats and Republicans can agree on some of the main issues, such as rules involving pre-existing conditions.

“I think they can reach common ground, but it’s probably not in their political benefit to do so (meaning it’s unlikely).” he wrote. “We’re already in the presidential election cycle, and the Democrats’ approach seems to be anti-Trump no matter what.”

Both sides of the aisle will posture to appeal to their bases, he added, while making little real effort to solve the problems.

“It’s a mess, and everyone is to blame,” Plummer said.

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Write to the Editorial Department at editorial@cpbj.com

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