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Insurers put wide-ranging information a touch away At least for now, interactive sites are hard to find

Consumers eager for advice on healthy living, tips on health insurance or insight on healthcare reform can just look at their favorite social media site.

Chances are, your health insurer is Tweeting, uploading videos, networking or posting comments about it on their wall.

After a slow start compared to some industries, health plans in Western New York and nationally are setting up Facebook pages and Twitter handles to talk about what they're doing and what's new, where you can find them today and how to stay healthy. They're tweeting, commenting and blogging about health topics, including federal reforms.

They're posting videos of their doctors, nurses or executives "talking" to anyone who will listen. And they're recruiting to fill key positions.

"We're looking at social media as where the consumers are and the members are, and as a place where we need to be to meet their needs where they are," said Kerri Garrison, special assistant to the CEO at HealthNow New York. She oversees social media development for the parent of BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York.

"Many people no longer receive all their information via the traditional channels, such as the paper or TV, and many are now on Facebook or Twitter and getting information and communicating with other people. That's why we have a pretty strong presence on those sites."

If a company is not already doing it, chances are it is preparing to.

"There's just a ton of traffic on these social media places. We know that Facebook is continuing to grow," said John R. Rodgers, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at Independent Health Association in Williamsville. "We haven't heard from our customers, employers or members that it's a driving need for them now. But we clearly have our finger on the pulse of it, and we're developing a strategy."

Insurers say they see social media sites as a means to communicate not only with their members but also the broader community, educating them about health issues and promoting their own activism.

"We don't see it so much as what social media sites can do for us, but what they can do to assist our members and the community at large," Garrison said. "It's helped to enhance the dialogue that we have with our members and the community. They're seeing us more as a resource for them than they may necessarily have thought about their health insurer, so it's been very positive for us."

So far, it's mostly informational and one-directional, with very little interactive communication. Insurers are still shying away from serving members online or helping them understand their own benefits, preferring to deal directly with customers in more traditional ways to handle such personalized questions or issues that also raise privacy concerns.

"We're using Facebook as sort of a communication tool. We also use it as a tool for recruiting," Rodgers said. "But it's more as a tool for push out than a truly interactive place."

Among local insurers, HealthNow is far ahead in its social media outreach. The company, as BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York, has a presence on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for marketing and outreach, and its recruiters use LinkedIn to fill top positions.

The insurer uses Facebook and Twitter to post health tips, information about healthcare reform, questions and answers on hot topics, and updates about what's going on with the company and the community. When the first massive lake-effect storm hit the Southtowns in December, the company tweeted about burning calories while shoveling, but also cautioned about injuries to the back.

"We don't necessarily have a set schedule of topics," Garrison said. "It's more reactive."

In one of the few examples of interaction, the company's Facebook page also features a health coach who is available every day, enabling members to submit questions that the coach will either answer directly or post a tip in response to.

On YouTube, BlueCross has posted seven videos, including Chief Medical Officer Dr. Cynthia Ambres talking about quitting smoking, healthcare reform and nutritious breakfasts.

Finally, it has successfully used LinkedIn to recruit executives, starting at the director-level.

"LinkedIn is really the Cadillac for me in reaching out to the people I most want to contact," said HealthNow executive recruiter Patti Nardone. "People seem very well disposed to being contacted through LinkedIn. They consider it a professional organization."

Currently, HealthNow has over 2,190 followers or fans of its Facebook page, and posts several times a week or even daily.

By contrast, Independent Health has 163 Facebook fans -- "I'm sure Lady Gaga has a few more," Rodgers joked -- but posts only infrequently, to promote community events and job fairs or highlight awards and recognitions.

And Univera Healthcare and parent Excellus BlueCross BlueShield of Rochester don't have company Facebook pages.

On Twitter, HealthNow has 456 followers and has tweeted 459 times, versus 452 followers and 547 tweets for Excellus and 188 followers and 406 tweets for Univera. IHA is not on Twitter.

On LinkedIn, HealthNow has 500 followers, while Independent Health has 397, Excellus has 1,005 and Univera 109.

Instead, Independent Health and Univera Healthcare are focusing on providing information, services and resources through their websites. "Our webpage is really the place we want people to go, as opposed to Facebook itself," Rodgers said.

For example, Independent Health offers a live nurse chat online and allows members to communicate by secure e-mail with a health coach.

"We've invested quite a bit in our website to ensure we have the right privacy and safeguards for our members," said Jill Syracuse, senior vice president for member services at the insurer. "We're really building out our web capabilities to provide members information when they need it."

And while Univera shares news through Twitter and LinkedIn, and offers information on Medicare products through Facebook, its website is the source for most of what it provides.

"When it comes to the Internet, our website is still our focus since it allows us to offer our members and other visitors more complete rather than cryptic information," said Univera spokesman Peter Kates. "Our members need detail, which can't typically be conveyed in 140 characters."