Internet financial sites such as QuickenInsurance and YouDecide.com are facing some of the same challenges that banks face in marketing health insurance.
Terry Freeman, a managing consultant at Tillinghast-Towers Perrin in Atlanta, said that neither Web sites nor banks have succeeded in identifying consumers who need health coverage. "And neither has mastered how to fit them with the appropriate product. Both have to learn how to identify and match the risk with the appropriate pricing."
Val Jordan, president of Jordan & Jordan Associates, a Belchertown, Mass., bank insurance consulting firm, said neither banks nor Web sites have sold a lot of health insurance "because it's a complicated product."
It would take "a second set of experts at a bank to sell it effectively and correctly," she said. "On the group side, some of it is standard stuff, and commercial guys can handle it," she said. "But for an individual policy, it's tough. Getting something cost-effective is impossible. It'll take an enormous effort for banks to get the expertise."
In the meantime, letting people buy health insurance on the Internet is like giving dynamite to babies, Ms. Jordan said. "It's quite an assumption to think the person understands the product. With auto insurance, if you buy the wrong product, it could cost you $1,000. With health insurance, we're talking $10,000 worth of mistakes, if not more."
She said she would research health insurance on the Web but would hesitate to buy coverage there. "It's not going to save me money because it's underwritten the same," Ms. Jordan said. "Rates are rates, and I'd want to at least talk about it over the phone with someone."
Still, Mr. Freeman said, banks and Web sites have some different marketing challenges. "A bank has a wealth of existing customers and a relationship with them. A Web site doesn't have that."
Web sites also can take information, examine two or three insurers' plans, and come back to the consumer with the best deal, he said. "That's something a bank isn't as good at."
The sites also have a better chance of selling health insurance to high-risk clients, Mr. Freeman said. "If I'm high-risk and need a plan, I'd consider" buying insurance over the Web "if the features and price are right," he said. "The Internet can be a way where providers writing riskier health insurance can connect with people in need of it."
Ms. Jordan said that, whether health insurance is bought at a bank or online, the two distribution channels could work together to increase sales and offer a larger array of products. "If I am a bank, I would take advantage of what" the Web sites "are doing and align strategically with them," she said.
Sites such as eHealthInsurance.com of Sunnyvale, Calif., which offers a link to the Web site of the Detroit banking company Comerica Inc., hopes more banks will form Web partnerships. Gary Lauer, the Web company's chief executive officer, said his site, which just hooked up with youdecide.com, has eliminated some of Ms. Jordan's concerns about buying health insurance on the Internet.
"We have 60 licensed, full-time agents to provide counsel for all health insurance products," Mr. Lauer said. "They can be contacted through e-mail, a real-time chat, or through an 800 number. It can take one day or several weeks to close a deal, depending on a person's health history and the product being purchased."