Insurance firms ramp up plans to reach individual customers

With as many as 30 million new customers at stake, health insurance companies are beginning to veer away from b-to-b outreach toward employers, their longtime staple, and bolstering direct-to-consumer outreach.

With as many as 30 million new customers at stake, health insurance companies are beginning to veer away from b-to-b outreach toward employers, their longtime staple, and bolstering direct-to-consumer outreach.

The treasure trove of new members comes courtesy of the Affordable Care Act. The law mandates that most Americans must have health insurance by 2014. Middle- and low-income residents and seniors will comprise many of the newly covered. The uninsured will buy coverage through insurance exchanges established in each state with enrollment starting in October.

To create effective messaging strategies that resonate, Aetna carried out a survey late last year entitled the Empowered Health Index, which asked people about their experiences with insurance and healthcare.

The survey revealed that 88% of consumers who found benefit decisions difficult feel that way because available information is confusing and complicated, and 83% feel it is hard to know which plan is right for them.

The company will use survey results to inform new programs, tools, and resources that will help consumers engage with healthcare providers and manage their health and wellness, says Ethan Slavin, a communications business partner at Aetna.

Blurring the lines

It's not just health insurance companies seeing dollar signs. Tax preparer companies, such as Jackson Hewitt, are expecting new client opportunities for the 2013 tax season.

Under the Affordable Care Act, individuals and families that are close to the federal poverty level can use tax credits to reduce health insurance premiums purchased through insurance exchanges.

As a result of the potential tax benefits, Jackson Hewitt is looking into potentially charging a fee to help enroll people into exchanges.

But federal guidance is unclear on whether the services can be monetized.

"At what point are we going from helping people understand the tax implications to crossing the line into something that starts to resemble an insurance broker service?" asks Mark Steber, Jackson Hewitt's chief tax officer.

Digital outreach
Strategies will include introducing mobile applications and increased information via other digital channels so people can do more online and on the go.

"We're putting the power of health in people's hands, helping them understand their healthcare and benefits, make confident choices, and lead healthier lives," explains Slavin.

Independence Blue Cross is also beefing up communications via social and digital media. "You have to meet the audience where they live," says John McClung, VP of creative services at the firm.

Consumers can sign up for insurance plans via apps on smartphones.

These are also the platforms where the company expects to reach those over the age of 26 who are no longer under their parents' coverage. Wooing this demographic is expected to be challenging as many of them live "with a sense of invincibility," says McClung. "We need to get across that we have a product and services that meet their needs."

Different approach
In addition to PR, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey is taking a boots-on-the-ground approach, opening a center in Moorestown, NJ. "Consumers are demanding a physical place where they can interact with staff," explains Thomas Rubino, director of public affairs and advertising at the company. "We're trying to meet that need."

For larger insurance companies operating across multiple states, developing specific communications strategies per territory has been a challenge. Only 19 states indicated they would start their own exchange, seven said they will partner with the federal government, and 25 elected to have the government run exchanges. With different models, companies remain unsure what they can say to consumers in some areas.

Many states such as California, Minnesota, and Nevada have hired PR or marketing firms to promote exchanges. For the exchanges that will be federally run, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services hired Weber Shandwick to raise awareness.

As they move forward companies are mindful the employer audience still represents a significant portion of their client base. "Employers are still there. They will still be our clients, and we cannot ignore that," says Darren Rodgers, CMO for Health Care Service, operator of Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans in Illinois, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. "It is a matter of shifting the messaging balance." 

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