Health insurance stores let you truly shop for insurance

Mary Lou Jay

Next time you plan a shopping trip, you might be able to add a health insurance store to your list of places to visit.

A health insurance store is a retail outlet where people looking for coverage can seek information and advice and even buy a plan. It's a timely concept. A March 2011 Gallup poll showed that the percentage of Americans who receive health coverage from their employers has declined over the past three years to 45 percent. Although another 25 percent of Americans have some form of government-sponsored health care (Medicaid, Medicare. and military and veterans' benefits), that leaves about 30 percent of all Americans on their own when it comes to health care coverage. Some may choose not to buy coverage, but for those who want it, evaluating all the options from many different carriers can be a daunting task.

That's where health insurance stores come in. Some are operated by health insurance companies that want to promote and sell their own policies. Others may be run by brokers who offer plans from a variety of insurance carriers and receive commissions from those carriers when they sell a health insurance policy.

One recently opened health insurance store in Baltimore -- HealthPlan Headquarters -- provides guidance to individuals and employers looking for group health insurance coverage. Its counselors will sit down with potential buyers and explain and compare various medical, dental, vision and disability plans from different carriers. Customers can range from young people no longer eligible for their parents' health insurance to seniors who need help sorting out their Medicare choices. All of these counseling services are free to consumers.

Highmark, a Pennsylvania-based insurance carrier, opened the first Highmark Direct store in Pittsburgh in 2009 and provided health insurance information to more than 20,000 people during its initial year of operation, according to Highmark's website. That included not only those who needed health care coverage but also those who had policies with Highmark and wanted assistance understanding their coverage and benefits. Highmark Direct now has six Pennsylvania locations.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida recently opened five Florida Blue centers. Like Highmark Direct and HealthPlan Headquarters, Florida Blue locations offer presentations and special events focused on wellness and health insurance topics. But Florida Blue takes its services a step further, offering its members on-the-spot health care assessments and personalized plans to help them get in shape.

Retail health insurance stores are designed to take the mystery out of the health insurance market. It's too early to tell whether these stores will become a common fixture of malls and shopping centers, but it's possible that they'll be serving even more customers if the health care reform law's insurance mandate takes effect as planned. If it does, a lot more Americans will be shopping around for coverage.