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Business Observer Friday, Nov. 13, 2015 6 years ago

People's Choice

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One of the largest lenders in the region is getting into a new line of business — a complicated side of insurance. Will it pay off?
by: Steven Benna Staff Writer

In its annual end-of-the-year survey, Suncoast Credit Union asked its members the usual questions: Are you satisfied? How did you hear about us? What else would you like to see us offer?

One of the results was a little off for the Tampa-based credit union, a nonprofit giant with $6.5 billion in assets, more than 600,000 members and at least 1,200 employees. That result: scores of people requested health insurance.

The credit union, one of the largest in Florida, responded to the demand.

The organization, in partnership with a for-profit subsidiary, Members Insurance Center, launched an online health insurance portal available to anyone, member and nonmember. The portal is basically a one-stop-shop where participants can comparison-shop and enroll online for individual health coverage. But it doesn't stop at basic health insurance.

“We found that often times if you're looking for one type of insurance, you want others, like vision and dental,” says Melva McKay-Bass, senior vice president of business development at Suncoast. “You can do that with the portal.”

Credit unions traditionally are known for car loans and other small financing deals, serving a population the industry says big banks don't reach. But to some in the industry a credit union adding a health insurance portal isn't much of a stretch.

“Most credit unions are always looking for ways to enhance the experience of their members and add value,” says Chip Coberly, vice president of member sales for GTE Financial, another Tampa-based credit union. “The trend right now is toward self-service and technology.”

Suncoast's move, adds Sozon Vatikiotis, CEO of AllTrust Insurance in Palm Harbor, is also part of a larger overall trend in the health insurance industry where distribution is direct to consumers. When the pre-existing conditions limitation went away for those interested in purchasing health insurance, “anyone can buy it anywhere at anytime,” Vatikiotis says.

Coberly says GTE looked into creating a portal when the Affordable Care Act was rolled out. But there was doubt about how members would comprehend the offerings. “The problem I see is you're making the assumption they know what they're doing and what they're buying,” Coberly says. “That's the big concern.”

Suncoast attempted to navigate that challenge with its offering.

The process at Suncoast starts by selecting what you need and getting quotes, says Mona Russell, vice president of insurance at Members Insurance Center. If a customer wishes to continue, he can save the quote, talk to an agent and ultimately, if satisfied, make a purchase.

“This was purely about adding convenience and minimizing uncertainty and helping our members save money,” says McKay-Bass.

Also, when a portal like Suncoast's is implemented, the credit union buys what's called a mother platform, Vatikiotis says. HealthPlan Services, a service provider for the insurance and managed care markets, developed the Suncoast portal.

Once the mother platform is in place, it can be customized from a branding perspective, and in this case, to “give it the Suncoast Credit Union feel,” McKay-Bass says. Part of that feel is making the process as smooth and member-oriented as possible.

“What makes what we offer different is we provide access to a licensed agent that can answer any questions throughout the process,” McKay-Bass says.

Suncoast doesn't have a specific number of users it's aiming for, or any target reach at all. The goal of the portal, say credit union officials, is simply to provide another to members at no extra cost.

Follow Steven Benna on Twitter @Steve_Benna

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