If you are still having trouble getting into the online health insurance marketplace, or your governor has essentially outlawed healthcare navigators, you may want to check out your local supermarket or strip mall. With health insurance now a required commodity, health plans are looking for new ways to engage potential customers, and that includes going into the traditional retail space.

Giant Eagle, a Pittsburgh-based grocery store with more than 200 locations throughout the Allegheny region, is holding healthcare reform information sessions from now until the end of the year at 20 of its western Pennsylvania locations. The Giant Eagle supermarkets in Erie and Johnstown are especially targeted, offering six such seminars in three months. Conveniently, representatives from Highmark Inc. will be on hand to answer questions.

Highmark is in the midst of a particularly fierce enrollment drive against rival UPMC and Aetna. Insurers participating in the health insurance exchange are looking for any extra edge to direct members to their plans, and this type of retail engagement demonstrates an early commitment to customer service. Health insurance is a complicated topic, particularly for the target audience of the exchanges, and face time with an insurance representative may be a deciding factor.

Giant Eagle is not just performing a community service. More insured customers means more doctor visits, and more prescriptions filled at the Giant Eagle pharmacy. By getting the private sector involved, Obamacare doesn't seem like a scary government takeover, but rather the marketing of a product that you really need -- maybe even want. Since the health insurance marketplace launched on Oct. 1, the online portal has been swamped with demand. In explaining the system's well-reported glitches, Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius compared the marketplace launch to the release of Apple's recent iOS update, which also saw overloaded servers.

This is not the typical awareness campaign for a government program, which is one of the brilliant aspects of the health exchanges: getting the private sector involved. Insurers' success depends on increasing awareness and creating demand. Some insurers have been preparing for this marketing push for years. Highmark has Highmark Direct retail stores throughout Pennsylvania, and Florida Blue has similar stores throughout the Sunshine State.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott has been especially hostile towards healthcare navigators, the groups funded by federal grants to increase awareness of Obamacare among the uninsured. Because of roadblocks set up by Scott and GOP members of the U.S. House of Representatives, there were only 34 navigators in all of Florida when the exchanges launched on Tuesday. Navigators in Florida are not allowed at state Department of Health facilities, including county health clinics for the uninsured. (New York State, which has a slightly higher overall population than Florida, but significantly fewer uninsured residents (3.8 million uninsured versus 2.2 million) has about 480 navigators.)

But Florida Blue has 16 retail stores available to assist in navigation. Humana also has several storefronts in the state. This retail presence is combined with ongoing traditional marketing efforts in media. In addition to these strategies, look for more cooperative efforts, like the Giant Eagle/Highmark information campaign.

Even states that are actively promoting the exchanges are relying on retail engagement. Maryland Health Connection will distribute information at Giant Food's 100 stores and the 170 CVS locations in the state, as well as hold community events at these locations. Maryland is also partnering with the Baltimore Ravens for outreach efforts.
The closest analogue to the activity around exchanges may be the launch of Medicare Advantage. Pharmacies touted their connections to popular private Medicare plans, and UnitedHealth started a co-branded product with AARP. The AARP deal highlighted the potential quandaries of relying on private companies to inform about a public service. Critics complained that AARP should have been an independent party for its members, but instead the lobbying group had financial incentive to direct members to UnitedHealth.

The ability of private companies to drive enrollment is indicative of a cultural shift, with more consumer trust given to well-positioned brands as people grow more wary of perceived government overreach. This is why people still line up for new iPhones and political campaigns look more like blockbuster movie launches. While health insurance is starting to become a right in the United States, the success of Obamacare may hinge on insurance being perceived as a desired commodity.

Follow Mark Cherry on Twitter @MarkCherryHLI

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