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Trolling for Insurance Prospects on Twitter

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Selling health insurance on Twitter? Yes indeed. Not long ago a simple tweet about a blog called Medicare Made Clear alerted me to this new way to find sales prospects for Medicare Advantage Plans and Medigap policies just in time for the annual open enrollment that begins Oct 15. As someone who has spent a lot of time trying to simplify Medicare for the public, naturally, I was interested to see how the competition might be doing it perhaps even learning a few new tricks for breaking down the complexities of Part B and the allowable charge.

I followed the Twitter link to Medicare Made Clear's blog where I found several posts that looked interesting. ' Here's a sample: 'How to Evaluate Medicare Plan Costs,' 'Out-of-Pocket Medicare Costs: What's the Limit?, 'What is a Medicare Medical Savings Account Plan?''  There were even posts called 'Medicare Memos.''  Why for some time I have written Medicare Beat Memos for the Columbia Journalism Review website. There wasn't much I could learn from that approach.'  I kept reading.

At the end there was a picture of a smiling young woman next to this message: Questions? To learn more about Medicare Made Clear, contact us at 1-877-619-5582.''  That sounded like 1-800-Medicare, the government's toll-free help line, which beneficiaries can call with their questions. Would some readers think they were calling Medicare?

At the very end of the blog site in teensy, weensy type was the revelation that this information came from United HealthCare, the largest seller of products to cover gaps in Medicare benefits. By this time I was suspecting I would find an insurance salesperson on the phone, so I called the number to see what they were selling. Sure enough, a sales agent said 'Hello.''  'I'm a trained licensed agent, she added, and I asked 'You sell insurance?

The agent said she sold Medicare plans and that 'The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has given us permission to sell the plans. Okay. The government does sign off on Medicare Advantage plans. But how many readers would make it to the very bottom of Medicare Made Clear's website to find out an insurance company is behind it?

Would they call the toll-free number and hear a pitch even if they hadn't planned on listening to one? Would they get hooked into a sale? Those are reasonable consumer questions, and they show how the boundaries between commercial information to generate sales and Medicare information from legitimate news organizations are blurring fast, especially given the 'shorthand' of 140 character limits and such of social media.

I further examined the Medicare Made Clear site and concluded that some of the information, such as the description of what is a benefit period under Part A (the hospital coverage) or Medicare worksheets, was like the stuff I would have produced at Consumer Reports. But the site certainly was not Consumer Reports. It had more of the feel of those sites promoted by drug companies and disease groups that receive funding from Big Pharma. Their purpose: to build excitement and interest in whatever cure they are pushing. United Healthcare may be doing the very same thing ginning up excitement for their Medigap policies.

The similarities between insurance company and drug marketing were striking when I clicked a button directing me to sign up for United's 'Medicare Made Clear Newsletter' which promised I could 'keep current with news and information from Medicare Made Clear.' Of course, signing up would do more than that. It would give the insurer my contact details, including zip code, for its great database of future customers. In the insurance biz, that's called lead generation, and getting sales leads this way is a snap. I recalled a similar newsletter a few years ago from a disease awareness group that was really promoting drugs for restless legs syndrome.

It seemed like United may have borrowed other marketing tactics from drug and device makers. United Healthcare offered a Medicare quiz to help sales prospects see where they might need more information. An online offering by a for-profit company called Talk about Sleep with ties to medical device makers offers a "sleep self assessment quiz" to help people, perhaps leading them to think they may need sleep medications.

This kind of marketing works; and United Healthcare shows it is spreading elsewhere in the growing health care marketplace. In the world of social media, it's 'buyer beware' more than ever.

 

 

 

More Blog Posts by Trudy Lieberman

author bio

Trudy Lieberman, a journalist for more than 40 years, is an adjunct associate professor of public health at Hunter College in New York City. She had a long career at Consumer Reports specializing in insurance, health care, health care financing and long-term care. She is a longtime contributor to the Columbia Journalism Review and blogs for its website, CJR.org, about media coverage of health care, Social Security and retirement. As a William Ziff Fellow at the Center for Advancing Health, she contributes regularly to the Prepared Patient Blog. Follow her on twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.


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