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UnitedHealthcare opens 'superstore' in Flushing, N.Y.


NEW YORK—You know those TV ads for Progressive, which are set in a make-believe insurance superstore overseen by Flo, the sassy, head-banded saleswoman?

On Wednesday, UnitedHealthcare is staging the ribbon-cutting ceremony of a real-life insurance superstore in Flushing, Queens. And much like Progressive's fictional sales clerk, United's consumer support store has trained staff available to help Flushing residents identify and apply for more than 15 types of state and federal social service programs, including the Elderly Pharmaceutical Insurance Coverage program, Medicare Savings Program, New York State Food Stamps program, and heat and electric subsidies.

United's 16,000-square-foot store gives current enrollees in United's employer-sponsored, Medicare, Medicaid and individual health plans access to customer service staffers who can answer questions in their native language about health care benefits, assist in resolving claims issues and help with other health insurance matters. The store is especially geared to Flushing's many Asian-American residents.

Billed as the nation's first comprehensive health benefits store, United's superstore is located at 136-02 Roosevelt Ave. in Flushing. The store has computers and iPads available for visitors' use to obtain and print health-related information, and a “health screening kiosk” that measures blood pressure, pulse and body mass index. The insurer also will host an ongoing, free series of education seminars on such topics as nutrition and exercise, disease management and financial planning.

“Health care is a local resource, and as consumers are increasingly being asked to play a greater role in their personal health, many people are not quite ready and may need extra support,” Gail Boudreaux, CEO of UnitedHealthcare, said in a statement noting Wednesday's ribbon-cutting ceremony. “Neighborhood centers like the UnitedHealthcare Asian Plaza will become more critical to ensure consumers have easier access to local resources so they can learn more about their health and the options available to them.”

The insurer opened its first New York store in a Chinatown storefront in 1994, which at the time was seen as an innovative way to reach out to New York immigrants in a culturally sensitive way.

“It was very impressive,” said Mark Scherzer, a health care attorney and advocate, of United's Chinatown storefront. “They understand if you are a trusted institution in the community, you are able to explain insurance coverage in a way that makes sense.”

Mr. Scherzer is the author of a 2009 report sponsored by New Yorkers for Accessible Health Coverage that examined the approaches of New York's major health insurers to insuring immigrant communities. The report, Connecting Immigrants to Commercial Health Coverage, found that insurers vary in the value they place on immigrants as a potential market and in the strategies they used to cultivate immigrants as customers. The study was funded by the New York State Health Foundation.

In New York state, noncitizens are three times as likely as citizens to be uninsured, and they comprise 28% of the state's uninsured population under age 65, said the report.

In addition to the insurer's Chinatown storefront and the new location in Flushing, United opened a support center for Medicare beneficiaries in Flushing in 2002, and a walk-in center for Long Island Medicaid members in Hempstead, L.I.

Barbara Benson is a reporter for Crain's New York Business, a sister publication of Business Insurance.