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Would You Like Health Insurance With Those Stocking Stuffers?

California's health insurance marketplace, Covered California, has supported the development of more than 200 new storefronts at or near shopping centers across the state this year, each tasked with explaining the ins and outs of different health plans to holiday (and everyday) shoppers.

Storefronts like this one in Pleasant Hill, Calif., capture a lot of walk-in traffic for health insurance.
Marc Protenic / HealthMarkets
Storefronts like this one in Pleasant Hill, Calif., capture a lot of walk-in traffic for health insurance.

"Especially during this time of year, malls have incredible foot traffic," says James Scullary, a Covered California spokesperson. "You may have someone who is running an errand or picking someone up who passes one of these facilities, and it passes in their mind: This is something they need to take care of."

Connecticut opened up storefronts in 2013 to great success, and the idea is being echoed across the country. The federal government has forged a partnership with Westfield Shopping Centers to set up kiosks in malls where people can talk to an enrollment counselor, in between visits to Macy's and Toys R Us. Officials have even suggested that health insurance could make a nice gift, especially for young adults who will soon age out of their parents' plan.

It's a new concept for many holiday shoppers.

"Health insurance? That's weird," says Irvin Barboza, who recently took his three kids to get their picture taken with Santa Claus at the Sunvalley Shopping Center in Concord, 30 miles east of San Francisco. "But I mean, I guess it's a good pitch. While everyone's shopping, might as well shop for health insurance, right?"

Agents with HealthMarkets, a national independent insurance agency, opened a storefrontjust down the block from the mall a couple of months ago, in time for the holiday shopping season. They planted several Covered California signs on the lawn to catch people driving by. About half their customers are walk-ins.

"A lot of them are going to the mall to buy Christmas presents and they see the sign and go, 'Oh my God, I have to do that,' " says Marc Protenic, head of sales.

He says this is a lesson learned from last year. Covered California pushed people to sign up online or over the phone. But it turned out many people preferred to get in-person help.

"What we discovered was that a storefront was better," Protenic says.

Covered California also realized that people often had several interactions with an agent, or visited the website several times, before they finally signed up, says Scullary.

"People wanted and needed several touch points before they would make a decision and pick a plan," he says, adding that establishing more storefronts was one way of creating more opportunities for this. "Being in the community, where people work or where they shop. It's just being where people are."

Many of the storefronts will close when the open enrollment period ends Feb. 15, Scullary says. But some, like the HealthMarkets shop near the Concord mall, plan to stay open year-round to help people with other insurance questions that arise in the off season.

This story was produced by State of Health, KQED's health blog.

Copyright 2014 KQED

April Dembosky is the health reporter for The California Report and KQED News. She covers health policy and public health, and has reported extensively on the economics of health care, the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act in California, mental health and end-of-life issues. Her work is regularly rebroadcast on NPR and has been recognized with awards from the Society for Professional Journalists (for sports reporting), and the Association of Health Care Journalists (for a story about pediatric hospice). Her hour-long radio documentary about home funeralswon the Best New Artist award from the Third Coast International Audio Festival in 2009. April occasionally moonlights on the arts beat, covering music and dance. Her story about the first symphony orchestra at Burning Man won the award for Best Use of Sound from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. Before joining KQED in 2013, April covered technology and Silicon Valley for The Financial Times, and freelanced for Marketplace and The New York Times. She is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Smith College.
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