Blue Shield Posts Reviews… Sort Of

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Enrollee Criticism is Compiled, But Mostly Hidden

When Blue Shield of California launched a program 18 months ago to allow enrollees to post reviews of their health coverage, the San Francisco-based insurer touted itself as a model of openness.

“We're proud to be the first health plan in the country to be fully transparent and encourage our members to share their healthcare experiences online in a richer and more visible way," Blue Shield Senior Vice President Rob Geyer said at the time.

The feature, called “Ratings and Reviews,” allows most Blue Shield enrollees to post a review of their specific health plan. Users can rate Blue Shield in six different categories, including access to physicians, value, customer service and overall satisfaction. They may also leave written comments, which are vetted prior to posting.

Blue Shield officials claimed in a statement last month that nearly 2,000 enrollees have posted reviews, with an average rating of four out of five stars. However, finding the reviews is a challenge at best. They have been meticulously siloed by the health plan from most of its enrollees and members of the public.

While enrollees are able to post reviews and comments, they are only able to view reviews that pertain to the specific plan in which they are enrolled, according to an examination of its member portal and a Blue Shield spokesperson (Blue Shield offers about a dozen plans altogether). If fewer than 10 reviews are posted for a specific plan, none are available for member viewing.

Meanwhile, members of the public can only access about 200 reviews for a Blue Shield Medicare plan and some employer group PPOs. Few new reviews have been added since the first round of preliminary reviews were released from a pilot program that began in 2009.

Consumer advocates say they haven’t heard of such handling of consumer reviews by a business that invites their submission. Siloing them defeats their purpose of educating consumers, they added.

Laurie Sobel, a senior attorney with Consumers Union in San Francisco, said it was the equivalent of allowing people who buy a specific model of Sony television read only those reviews in Consumer Reports,
while barring them from the Panasonic reviews until they buy the product. Sobel’s organization publishes Consumer Reports magazine.

“People want to read reviews in order to buy something,” Sobel added. “This situation can only serve in the limited capacity of confirming their own experiences with their specific health plan.”

Judy Dugan, research director for Consumer Watchdog, an advocacy group in Santa Monica, believes the reviews may be more for Blue Shield’s internal use than for enrollees and other consumers.

“The only useful thing about siloing these comments is that no consumer can see if there’s an overall pattern of problems with Blue Shield and some of their plans,” she said.

Dugan was also skeptical of another Blue Shield consumer-oriented initiative called “Member Stories.” Enrollees are encouraged to publish their own personal healthcare stories, photos and videos on the Blue Shield website. Story submissions are subdivided into 14 categories such as “positive parenting,” “aging gracefully,” and cancer.

“The topics are very self-help oriented, with nothing you can choose to voice a complaint or suggest that Blue Shield could be doing better” she said.

In the meantime, Blue Shield officials indicate it may make changes to its review process soon.

“We are currently developing the ability for non-members to be able to read all reviews of any Blue Shield health plan to better enable them to make decisions about their healthcare coverage,” said company spokesman Johnny Wong.

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