Private health insurers, whose highly publicized rate increases have made them unpopular among many customers, are using social media and Web sites to make more positive connections with members and to add client value. Social media and online features recently developed by local insurance carriers allow members to search plan information, ask questions about insurance policies and give their opinions about the service they are receiving. Health Net, Anthem Blue Cross of California and Blue Shield of California are three of those insurers using these methods, which can also serve as a marketing tactic. Last fall, Woodland Hills-based Health Net launched mobile applications for iPhones, iPads and Android phones that give members a wide variety of information. The company is now in the process of developing an app for Blackberry phones, said Mark Brooks, the company’s chief technology officer. Through the apps, members can access their plan details, information and background on in-network health care providers, mobile versions of ID cards and directions to local health care and urgent care facilities. Later this year, members will even be able to use the apps to chat with customer service representatives. “We’ve been really working hard to find ways to provide a more compelling and efficient client experience,” Brooks said. “We’ve been very pleased by the quantity of membership that’s utilizing the capability.” Branding plan Other insurance carriers say reaching out to members through the Internet can serve as both a marketing and self-development tool. Blue Shield of California, which has a company office in Woodland Hills, includes a health plan rating system on its Web site called “Rate & Review,” as well as an online forum called “Ask & Answer” where members can ask each other health-related questions. Questions are sometimes even answered by Blue Shield customer representatives and its health care professionals. Sue de Leeuw, director of brand marketing for the company, said the online capabilities help the health plan provider brand itself as a more transparent company. On the “Ratings & Review” page, members can rate their plans by categories, such as access to doctors in the network and access to pharmaceutical drugs. One of Blue Shield’s Medicare members logged onto the rating system on March 8 and gave the plan the highest possible rating with five stars for overall satisfaction. “After 6 major surgeries in the past 3 years, Blue Shield has been put to the test,” the member wrote. “Not even once did I feel ‘rushed” to leave the hospital because I was running out of benefits.” Another Medicare member, who posted a comment on March 10, 2010, gave the plan only two stars, with the lowest rating in the customer service category. “For Medicare subscribers getting an HMO from Blue Shield, do not count on this website for information,” the other member wrote. “If you have technical problems like registering so you can take advantage of the mail order pharmacy, good luck getting a response from the support group.” De Leeuw said praise and criticism from the Web site is used to help guide future improvement to the plans. “We wanted to find out what our members really thought, to hear it directly from them so we could learn and start working on the things that we’re not doing as well as we could,” she said. Blue Shield first launched the Web site sections in October 2009, inviting its seniors with Medicare membership to rate their plans. The company then rolled the effort out to 80 percent of its membership in April 2010. Full company membership is expected to be reached by this summer. The insurance carrier is also in the process of launching a section of its Website devoted to member stories. Member connection Kelly Colbert, marketing strategy director of Wellpoint Inc., said reaching customers through social media is a way to eliminate the usual distance created between large health plan providers and their members. Colbert was involved in launching the Facebook social media efforts of Wellpoint, which is the parent company of Woodland Hills-based Anthem Blue Cross of California. “I think that we found that the people that we talk to in the social media sphere really feel good when they have that human connection, that they’re not talking to a company, but that they’re talking to a person,” she said. Members of Anthem Blue Cross have access to two Facebook pages. Through the “Healthy Chat” page, members can ask questions about health benefits and the effects of health care reform on their policies. The “Healthy Join In” page offers video health tips from Bob Harper from the television show “The Biggest Loser,” who has partnered with the health plan provider. Anthem Blue Cross also has a Twitter account reserved that Anthem Blue Cross customer service representatives scour for customer questions they can help answer.