United Healthcare makes its pitch to be solid provider in region steeped in uncertainty

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Anyone wandering by the ballroom at the Wyndham Grand, Downtown, on Tuesday might have thought he had stumbled upon Disneyland's Main Street USA.

Storefronts with signs for a public library, a pharmacy, a news office, a health clinic and a café filled the 7,000-square-foot ballroom -- and at least one costumed character strolled the grounds.

The old-fashioned town square motif was constructed and staffed by United Healthcare, one of several large commercial health insurers making their presence known in the region's newly-competitive local insurance market.

In the ballroom, the library had information about health literacy, explaining common but often confusing health insurance terminology. The storefront marked "City News" offered some of the latest United Healthcare programs; the WiFi Cafe featured online health tools and cost calculators. The one-day exhibit, called "Health Care Lane," attracted more than 150 people and specifically targeted local benefits managers, chief financial officers, health providers and others in key positions to decide which provider will get their business.

"It was very impressive," said John Seltzer, an insurance broker and consultant based in Mt. Lebanon, who was among the early visitors. "They obviously invested an enormous amount in it, and I think they have a really good story to tell."

United Healthcare's head storyteller is Sue Schick, CEO for the insurer's operations in Pennsylvania and Delaware. She was on hand Tuesday to greet visitors and share United's story, which she said emphasizes using technology and innovation to get good information to employers and consumers about finding high-quality care at lower cost.

"We believe that when you give consumers better information, they are going to make better decisions," she said.

Ms. Schick thinks it was fortuitous timing to bring Health Care Lane (an interactive online version can be found at www.HealthCareLane.com) to Pittsburgh a week after UPMC and Highmark agreed to extend their current contract terms to 2015.

While having to compete for subscribers with the long-established insurer Highmark for an extra 18 months doesn't seem like it would help United, or any of the other insurers, she said the pitched Highmark-UPMC battle the past year had created a lot of uncertainty. Many employers took a wait-and-see attitude, holding off any major decisions about changing carriers.

"As of last week, some of that uncertainty is removed," she said. "Now we have clarity, which I think is an advantage to us."

United Healthcare, a national carriers headquartered in Minnetonka, Minn., was already an established presence here, with 800 employees and plans that cover 280,000 lives. But Mr. Seltzer said it doesn't have good name recognition locally, and he wonders what kind of inroads the insurer will make.

"I think there is some difficulty in trying to figure out what they're identifying as their market in customers in Western Pennsylvania. It would appear they're still going after the large groups" of companies with 500 or more employees -- a sector that's not as competitive as the small- to mid-sized companies.

"Unfortunately, their price, while improving, is still not great in the smaller marketplace," he said.

But Ms. Schick and her staff clearly believe in their product, with plans that offer 24-7 phone or online access to a nurse or physician for consultations, online access to account and claims information, personal health records and many other features.

Ms. Schick has been more of a public face than many insurance CEOs and makes a concerted effort to reach out to people through venues such as offering tips in the newspaper for how businesses can help keep employees healthy. She believes such efforts are critical to building relationships.

"If you don't have the relationships, if you don't understand what a business needs, you're not going to be able to deliver to Pittsburgh what it needs."

businessnews - health

Steve Twedt: stwedt@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1963.


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