The state health exchange that will start selling Obamacare medical insurance on Oct. 1 has taken a cue from Apple: It will open its own stores.
Unlike Apple’s locations in malls and gentrified urban areas, Access Health CT will target the neighborhoods of Connecticut’s biggest and poorest cities in an effort to reach the largest possible number of uninsured people.
The quasi-public agency is still working out the details but the plan makes sense. Among the estimated 344,000 uninsured people in Connecticut, an astounding 85 percent live in the targeted cities: Hartford, Bridgeport, New Haven, Stamford, Waterbury and New Britain. The seventh location remains undecided, but will be in the eastern part of the state, probably Willimantic or Norwich.
No other health exchange in the United States is opening storefronts as far as anyone knows at Access Health CT, which is based in downtown Hartford. The idea came up late in the planning, just two or three months ago, as part of a brainstorming session with the staff and the ad agency, Pappas MacDonnell of Southport.
“This is an experiment. It may work, it may not work,” said Kevin Counihan, CEO of Access Health CT. “We want this to be in the neighborhoods where people can walk to them, take the bus to them.”
As they work to sign up as many as possible of the roughly 50 million uninsured people, the various state exchanges are mostly planning to use media campaigns, referrals from community clinics, outreach through nonprofit groups and networks of “assisters” to enroll people in plans. Access Health CT is doing all of that too.
The storefront idea was inspired by Apple — a hugely successful marketer that brought computer retail from online to the malls and downtowns of America based on offering in-store experts performing a service, not just handing goods over the counter in exchange for money.
“We’re going to have people behind the genius bar that are brokers,” Counihan said.
A genuis bar? Brilliant! The Obamacare stores will feature Access Health CT’s distinctive orange-and-white motif, and will have portable displays showing pictures of, as Counihan says, “real people, real examples of the uninsured and people we ‘re talking about.”
Locations are not set yet in most cases, as Access Health continues to negotiate leases and find the right locations, the right size — typically about 2,000 to 2,500 square feet — on bus lines, with parking. You’d think there would be plenty of that in urban neighborhoods, but parking isn’t so easy to find.
The idea makes sense not just because city neighborhoods are the heartland of the uninsured, but also as a bricks-and-mortar anchor and a place to go for answers. There’s been a lot of hand-wringing by federal officials about the web sites that describe the available subsidies, and about the detailed applications, both of which present a possible challenge to people with less education who are likely to lack health coverage.
“We’re a small state, we know where the uninsured are,” said Jason Madrak, the Access Health CT marketing chief. “We’re going to be taking the message directly to people.”
He was talking broadly about the whole campaign, but that’s especially true of the stores.
With money being tight, who will staff them? A combination of exchange staffers and outside brokers and assisters, Counihan said. Brokers who make a commission selling health plans might clamor for the right to staff the stores, and under the federal rules, any broker selling any exchange plan must be licensed to sell plans from every company in that exchange — so there will be no favoritism.
It might make sense for the Obamacare stores to double up with related goods and services such as nutrition and long-term care plans. But that can’t happen, Counihan said. “We’re actually very restricted by the law on what products can be sold,” he said.
So the locations will be more like banks and financial services stores, where customers are mainly buying a service and information. If it makes sense, why is Connecticut the only place trying it? That might be because only 14 states ended up running their own exchanges — the rest are relying on the feds — and this state was well ahead in its planning.
Still, Counihan said, “this is a lot of work.” Anyone in retail could have told him that, of course.