Independence Blue Cross plan members are active users of digital tools—more than 621,000 plan members use the IBXpress.com portal, or just under half of the insurer’s eligible membership.

Signing up for health benefits, or renewing an existing plan, is an annual task many consumers would rather put aside—or not do all.

Even though many health insurers have taken benefits enrollment online, many patients would still literally prefer going to the dentist or dealing with the Internal Revenue Service than signing up for insurance. A November 2016 survey from UnitedHealth Group revealed that about one-fourth of consumers would rather file their taxes than go through the ordeal of selecting a health insurance plan—and 28% would prefer to get their teeth cleaned.

But in Philadelphia, Independence Blue Cross is rolling out more digital tools—including a redesigned website and mobile site that make it easier for members to manage the plan’s portal and their benefits. For example, Independence Blue Cross rolled out this summer a program called Achieve with Independence that consists of digital tools that enable users to start a personalized wellness program, access a library of health and wellness content, and use a specialized search engine and database to research medical treatments and symptoms. Members also are able to track physical activities with fitness trackers and the Independence Blue Cross app and receive personalized e-mail or text messages about their benefits, health action plans and related wellness information.

The program is a free service to members, the plan says.  “Our suite of innovative digital resources and tools put members in control of their health and well-being goals while providing support and inspiration to stay on track,” says Independence Blue Cross senior vice president and chief marketing officer Paula Sunshine.

Independence Blue Cross developed Achieve in conjunction with New Ocean Health Solutions, a Conshohocken, Pa., healthcare software company. So far about 30,000 plan members have visited the Achieve web site and multiple trips by some plan members have brought total visits to about 70,000, Sunshine says. “We’ve seen steady growth since the launch,” she says.

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Going forward new upgrades to Achieve will focus on specific chronic conditions such as diabetes and asthma. Diabetes is one of the top five health conditions affecting people nationally according to Blue Cross Blue Shield Health Index. In Philadelphia, more than 15% of people have been told by a doctor they have diabetes. In addition, in 2015 Philadelphia was ranked as the third most challenging place in the U.S. to live in with asthma, according to a report by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. The next iteration of Achieve will address such chronic health problems, the plan says. “We are looking at how people are using the site to identify trends and keep them coming back,” Sunshine says.

Independence Blue Cross is a national carrier with more than 8.5 million people insured in 24 states and Washington, D.C. The plan is also the biggest health insurer in southeast Pennsylvania with a 2.5 million plan members. With such a large healthcare constituency to cover, Independence Blue Cross is developing a robust set of digital and mobile tools to make researching, buying and managing health benefits easier for consumers, Sunshine says.

For example, last fall Independence Blue Cross opened a new 10,000-square-foot facility adjacent to its headquarters in downtown Philadelphia. The new facility dubbed Independence Live is designed to be a customer service and community health and wellness space that features plenty of ways consumers can go online to shop for insurance, deal with other health insurance tasks and access a range of financial, healthy living and fitness programs.

At the center of the Independence Live space is an area Independence Blue Cross calls its technology arcade. The space was constructed to resemble the look of Apple’s popular stores where customers can walk in and interact online with an Apple device or computer and face to face with an Apple customer rep.

The Independence Live technology arcade features a range of desktop computers, tablets, smartphones and wearable devices consumers can use to try out various web self-service health and wellness tools and mobile apps. For example, Independence Blue Cross employees can teach consumers how to use an Apple Watch to download and use a fitness app or use a smartphone camera to scan a pill bottle for a pharmacy refill.

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Independence also was an early and aggressive user of secure text messaging and apps to deliver insurance benefits and related updates to plan members. It has made targeted use of the mobile web and personalized secured text messaging to motivate plan enrollees and their covered dependents to use digital self-service tools. Independence Blue Cross is using its mobile technology to link customers to its recently updated mobile app with faster ways to access the payer’s online self-service tools for information such as finding cheaper generic drug substitutions for brand-name drugs.

Almost two-thirds of our subscribers are connected to us digitally through email and/or text.

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To generate a response among plan enrollees and sign up more people for its mobile app, Independence Blue Cross routinely sends out personalized and targeted text messages aimed at educating consumers. For example the insurer sends out messages on cost-saving alternatives to using an emergency room and adding a primary care physician to their HMO plan.

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The targeted text message campaigns generate several positive responses, such as higher click-through rates and more plan enrollees taking action as a direct result of the message. For example, in 2016 a text message reminding plans members about getting a flu, which encouraged users to go to the carrier’s website or use the app to find a convenient in-network provider location, generated a click-through rate of 54%, and led 72% of those people to take action after reading the message.

Today, Independence Blue Cross has an established mobile healthcare program that’s evolved over four years from simple text messaging to more advanced uses, Sunshine says. More than 25% of log-ins on IBXpress.com now come from a mobile device and the number of plan members that download the plan’s mobile app each month range from 2,000 to 5,000.

About one-third of all commercial plan members also have signed up for IBX Wire, the carrier’s text messaging program. “IBX Wire launched in 2013 and since then has evolved from simple reminder campaigns, such as preventive screenings, to providing highly personalized messages about gaps in care, such as missed tests or unfilled prescriptions,” Sunshine says. “In addition, we can now send links to members that take them directly from a text message to key digital tools.”

Paula Sunshine

Recent updates to IBX Wire includes sending a text message to a member with a non-emergency issue with a link to a “Find a Doctor” tool showing the member urgent care centers and retail clinics in their area, “which can save our members money on out-of-pocket expenses,” Sunshine says. The plan’s drug-pricing digital tool also is sent as a link via text message to members who fill a prescription with a brand name when a generic or mail order option is available.

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Sophisticated and consistent use of mobile tools and text messaging is delivering a return on investment for Independence Blue Cross. For example, plan members who used the drug-pricing tool delivered via a text message made the switch from brand drugs to generics 20% more often than members not signed up for text messages. “On average, brand drugs cost 10 times the cost of generic drugs,” Sunshine says.

More mobile access to IBXpress.com also is helping plan members access the Blue Cross plan’s recently updated website. The site offers easier navigation and search functionality to access personalized benefits and coverage information, and lets members share, print, or order a new identification card right from the home page. They can also more quickly find a physician, doctor, or other healthcare professional, and see recent claims. The newly updated home page also lets plan member use the Achieve Well-being digital tools, view important message and get answers through the Ask IBX smart search bar at the top of every page.

“Claims review, benefits overview and bill payment accounted for nearly half of all function usage in September,” Sunshine says. “Overall, almost two-thirds of our subscribers are connected to us digitally through email and/or text, making us uniquely positioned to empower our members to be informed healthcare consumers,” she says. “Our goal is to help them better understand and maximize their health benefits, make informed health care decisions, and optimize their health for greater well-being—all while confidently managing their healthcare finances.”

Independence Blue Cross plan members are active users of digital tools—more than 621,000 plan members use the IBXpress.com portal, or just under half of the insurer’s eligible membership, Sunshine says.

But as more health or wellness management shifts directly to the consumer and as more consumer-drive web and e-commerce companies such as Amazon.com target healthcare, more of how Independence Blue Cross deals with plan members—and how the carrier drives new and recurring premium growth—will be digitally driven. “We know that consumers have grown accustomed to having information available within seconds on their phones or computers, and companies that can provide that experience are more likely to engage their customers and keep them coming back for more,” Sunshine says. “When planning for the redesign, we began with an extensive analysis of portals from a number of consumer websites —both in the health care industry and some companies you might not expect, including airlines and financial planning.”

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