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PPACA exchanges: Google wants in

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The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (PPACA) is calling for states, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and health insurers to have complicated, in-depth communications with tens of millions of consumers — including many previously uninsured consumers — about a year from now.

Technology companies are hoping the rise of the PPACA exchanges will lead to strong new demand for customer relationship management (CRM) systems and services.

One of the companies taking an interest is Google (Nasdaq:GOOG).

Google is trying to get health insurers and brokers interested in using search-related analytical tools, to figure out what consumers are thinking, and Web-based branding campaigns, to get consumers to think nice things about the insurers and brokers.

Bill Lan, Google’s industry director for insurance, said Google believes it could play an important role in helping the health insurance industry shift from an insurer-to-employer approach to an insurer-to-consumer approach.

Since the voters put President Obama back in office Nov. 6, “the conversations have definitely started to heat up,” Lan said in an interview. “Now, people are asking, ‘What do we do to get ready?’”

Insurers already have been using Google’s You Tube video service to support insurer-to-consumer marketing efforts in the Medicare Advantage market, which, in some ways, may be similar to what the PPACA exchange markets may be like.

UnitedHealth Group, for example, has already been trying to attract the attention of consumers in the Medicare market by posting videos about Medicare on a Medicare site.

Humana also has been posting Medicare Web videos.

For insurers, one surprise has been what a high percentage of their prospects are already online, Lan said

Traditionally, insurers have thought of consumers ages 65 and older is being offline consumers, but 84 percent of those consumers now own a computer, a telephone or some other device that connects them with the Internet, Lan said.

For insurers, Lan said, another sobering realization is how much effort they now have to put into marketing their brand, rather than relying on a broker or employer to flesh out company image details at the point of enrollment.

If a health a plan that thinks of itself as a high-priced, high-value option ranks near the top of a page of exchange results in terms of price, and a consumer has never heard of the plan, the plan may get no chance to  convince the consumer how much value it offers, Lan said.

Going forward, insurers might have to give more attention to live chat tools, and even live video chat tools, to give the bewildered consumers using the new exchange sites access to live humans.

Companies selling products through the Web have to balance the cost of giving consumers access to live human beings, through the Web or other means, against the cost of making their sites easier to use and the cost of losing business, Lan said.

Health insurers, in particular, may also have to take the cost of letting consumers blunder their way into preventable, potentially costly errors into account.

Twenty years ago, some early developers of the first consumer banking kiosks were sure that offering two-way videoconferencing would be the only way for a bank to sell high-value products through the Web.

Since then, Web-based consumer banking has taken off, but bank consumer video conferencing has not — and banks still have a hard time selling complicated, high-value products through the Web.

Ordinary one-way video is clearly something consumers who are trying to figure out how to buy health insurance want, Lan said.

Efforts to use “two-way video conferencing” or “live video chat” for customer service are still in a very early stage of development, he said.

But Google offers access to that kind of technology through its Google+ Hangout system, and Facebook is offering video conferencing services through a relationship with Skype.

Existing “private health insurance exchanges” — Web-based insurance sales sites — tend to offer consumers easy access to text-based and voice-based live human options.

EHealth (Nasdaq:EHTH), for example, the company that runs the website, lets consumers who are looking at a page of plan search results click their way through to a telephone-based “click to talk” customer service representative or to a customer service representative who can chat through a “click to chat” system.

LivePerson (Nasdaq:LPSN), a live chat company, says that, when it commissioned a survey of about 500 consumers, it found that 45 percent said they like live-chat customer service the best. Email support and toll-free telephone support tied for second. Those sources of support each appealed to 27 percent of the survey participants.

About 40 percent of the consumers said they would like to able to live chat with companies through their mobile phones.

Virgin Airlines adopted a live-chat system and found that conversion rates for consumers who used live chat were 3.5 times higher than the conversion rates for comparable consumers who did not use live chat, according to LivePerson.

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