Why insurance companies are hitting the streets promoting ‘Obamacare’

     Employees and executives of Independence Blue Cross crowd around a new outreach truck parked outside the company's headquarters. (Elana Gordon/WHYY)

    Employees and executives of Independence Blue Cross crowd around a new outreach truck parked outside the company's headquarters. (Elana Gordon/WHYY)

    Christopher Hatfield was strolling down Market Street Wednesday when he encountered what could have been a festive block party or campaign rally crammed on the sidewalk. It was Independence Blue Cross [IBX], the region’s largest health insurer, kicking off a new effort outside its headquarters, aimed at helping people navigate changes in health care, and hopefully with that, grow its business and customer base.

    Perhaps that could at some point include Hatfield, who wants health insurance. “I don’t have none right now,” he said. Hatfield has heard there is assistance for people who, like him, have low incomes. He didn’t know of any more specifics, but hopes it will help him with needed dental work.

    Nationwide millions of people are expected to gain new coverage options through state-based marketplaces that open for enrollment in the fall. People will face fines for not having any coverage, while many will also qualify for federal subsidies geared toward making plans more affordable. 

    The problem, according to IBX leaders, is a lot of people don’t know about what may be available to them or about the health law in general.

    “That’s folks that are in businesses, that’s folks who are employed on their own, that’s folks who don’t have employment,” said CEO Dan Hilferty. “Whenever there’s an announcement about a delay or how to enroll, people hear it, but do they really understand it?”

    IBX’s response is mobile: it has a new blue truck, “The Independence Express,” equipped with iPads and other high tech education tools that will be traveling the region. Inside, people can consult about their options, learn and review health insurance basics and sign up for Blue Cross coverage.

    IBX, with about 2 million members in the region, joins a slew of groups, public and private, that have recently been revving up their outreach around the law and the upcoming marketplaces.

    Not all insurers are on board, however, or are participating. “There is some risk associated with it. I think all the companies are a little unsure about whether this will actually make money for them,” said Robert Town, a professor specializing in health care at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “But in the long run it very well might.”

    Blue Cross leaders are optimistic, so long as they can successfully reach people and spread their brand. That’s the intent, through showing up in its “Independence Express” bus at anything from prayer events to high school sports games over the next several months.

    As for Christopher Hatfield, who walked by the truck during its official launch on Market Street, he doesn’t plan to stop in. He also already has his own plan for learning more about the law. “Talk to my sister-in-law, she’ll tell me what’s going on,” Hatfield said, adding that he might check out the truck if he were to see it out and about.

    Disclosure: Independence Blue Cross is an underwriter of WHYY.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal