Call it the health insurance Blue-tique. Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield is opening storefronts in shopping malls to talk health insurance.
Highmark Direct will be the name on the front of this store, whose mission it will be to meet with sales staff from the insurance company to learn more about health insurance options and, before leaving the store, sign up for insurance the way a consumer might by a bed from a SelectComfort shop or a stereo component from Bose. The first Highmark Direct shop will be in Pittsburgh, PA.

Highmark isn’t the first Blues plan to go direct in shopping centers: the Florida Blue Cross plan is marketing individual plans through “Florida Blue” shops. These opened in February 2007, and currently have storefronts in Jacksonville and Pembroke Pines, FL.

Highmark is going after individual health insurance plan sales, a health insurance market segment that is seen by many large insurers as the only place to grow. The plans will be marketed to individuals (including seniors) and small business.

According to the company’s press release, the Highmark Direct store sounds like it will look like a high-end bank lobby. There will be private meeting rooms and kiosks for plan prospects to learn about the various plan options. In the Florida Blue shop, there are also private rooms that enable live video conferences between customers and Highmark staff.

Health Populi’s Hot Points: One year ago, I wrote about Highmark’s consumer health innovation: a debit card to be used for health care purchases. (As of today, by the way, the website for the card at was not accepting any new orders).

This retail concept could help address a real problem in consumer-driven health today: health plan illiteracy. By putting health insurance into the retail paradigm, consumers could more effectively learn about the mind-numbing alphabet soup that is health plan purchasing: from PPO to HMO to HSA. Read more about health plan illiteracy here in Health Populi’s post, Consumer dis-engagement: health plan illiteracy persists. The post discusses Regence Blue Cross’s survey finding that most enrolled Americans don’t understand health plan lingo.

The declining economy and job losses portend a growing market need for individual health plans. Highmark sees that. But in recent posts here on Health Populi revealing the direct link between the declining macroeconomy and the consumers’ health microeconomy, we’re learning in real time about how Americans are responding: so far, through self-rationing of prescription drugs, physician visits, and preventive care.

The health economics experiment that Highmark is entering is to learn the difference between sheer need versus demand — which is consumer’s perceived need versus their willingness-to-pay. Will individuals ante up for heath plans in the retail environment? We’ll find out by closely watching Highmark, Florida Blue, and other plans who seek greater consumer engagement in Health @ Retail.