Highmark puts insurance out on retail shelves

By Rick Stouffer

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Beginning today, McKnight Siebert Shopping Center visitors can enjoy a Starbucks Espresso, get a trim at Anthony's barber shop and buy health insurance at the new Highmark Direct store.

Highmark Inc., Western Pennsylvania's dominant health insurer, selected the Ross shopping plaza to experiment with what experts believe could be the next way insurance companies connect with their customers -- via face-to-face meetings in a store-like atmosphere.

Even as Highmark was showing off its new store to invited guests, protesters trumpeting single-payer, Medicare-like universal care demonstrated against the facility in front of Highmark's Downtown headquarters.

A retail store is the logical progression for where health insurance has been heading for the last 10 years, said Highmark's CEO Ken Melani. Getting the insured more involved in determining the right health insurance policy for them today is key.

"Up until now, consumerism mainly dealt with the products we offered," Melani said, standing in the middle of the new store. "Now, individuals actually are purchasing health insurance, and health care under the Obama administration will lead to even more individuals purchasing health insurance."

Among Highmark's goals, Melani said, is to help guide the purchaser through the buying process, using a warm, inviting store where employees can offer as much or as little assistance as a customer requires. The new store's primary customers will be individuals, but small business owners also are welcome.

"If someone wants to come here, sit down at a computer and just look at our health and wellness Web site, or our preventive health Web site, or look at the Highmark Direct Web site, that's fine," said Mike Mary, the store's manager, who previously worked in Highmark's sales and marketing department.

"I don't see a downside to the retail store concept," said Rick Curtis, president of the Institute for Health Policy Solutions in Washington. "A storefront is easily accessible. It's not a solution for health care's bigger problems, like total coverage for all uninsured, but it's a Band-Aid, and Band-Aids aren't bad things."

"Health insurance is a complicated product, and this gives Highmark more control over how its products are presented," said Paul Ginsburg, president of the Center for Studying Health System Change in Washington.

Not everyone is happy Highmark is selling health insurance in a store setting.

"In the context of the health care crisis we have in this country, the opening of a store to sell health insurance is a retrogressive step," said Ed Grystar, co-chairman of the Western Pennsylvania Coalition for Single Payer Healthcare and a board member with the Butler County United Labor Council, AFL-CIO.

Grystar and about 30 coalition members yesterday gathered in front of company headquarters along Downtown's Stanwix Street to protest the Highmark Direct opening. The coalition wants the government to adopt a single-payer health care system, modeled after the current Medicare product.

"It's ironic the reason Highmark is opening stores is because the high cost of insurance is forcing employers to drop coverage and people to find their own coverage," said David Hughes, who attended the protest and is executive director of the consumer advocacy group Citizen Power. "Highmark is like an octopus. It first causes the problem, then weaves a web of stores to trap its victims."

Rick Stouffer can be reached at rstouffer@tribweb.com or 412-320-7853.


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