By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Hawaii Medical Service Association plans to open one of its new neighborhood centers in Hilo’s Waiakea Center.
The move is part of a larger, statewide expansion into three new storefronts, including ones on Keeaumoku Street in Honolulu and at the Pearl City Gateway shopping center, said Elisa Yadao, a senior vice president with HMSA.
“The thought is that we’re trying to be as responsive as we can to our consumers, and this is just one more channel we’re using to reach out to people,” she said Thursday.
The 3,000-square-foot storefront, located next door to Walgreens in the space formerly occupied by Down to Earth, will offer a wide range of customer services, Yadao said, including help purchasing plans, health coaching, bill paying, and other types of “face-to-face” customer service.
HMSA is investing about $500,000 in the neighborhood center, and an additional $1.5 million in the other two Oahu centers. All three will employ about 27 people, including eight in Hilo.
“Four of those positions will be filled by existing staff, and we’ll be hiring four new people,” Yadao said.
Work renovating the Waiakea Center building began in early July, and the new office is expected to open sometime in September, she added.
HMSA’s current Hilo branch office, located at 670 Ponahawai St., will eventually shut down to the public, she said, once the new neighborhood center opens its doors. The Ponahawai building will continue to house HMSA’s business office staff and other, behind-the-scenes workers until it moves into a new building currently under development in Keaau.
Yadao explained that HMSA has recognized that it must increase its customer service offerings as the public becomes better informed about their health care options, especially in light of health care reform.
“As people become more savvy as consumers, they have higher expectations across different lines about what kind of service they expect and deserve,” she said. “We’re trying to be responsive to that. We realize our business is changing and becoming more member oriented.”
She added that the new office will help to handle an influx of newly insured people as a result of Obamacare and the newly launched Hawaii Health Connector — an online health insurance marketplace mandated by the Affordable Care Act that helps individuals and small businesses search for, compare and purchase health insurance plans that are available to them.
“At the very least, we’re expecting to see in Hilo the kind of traffic that we’ve seen in our other offices with the opening of the Hawaii Health Connector and more people coming into the ranks of the insured,” Yadao said. “The assumption is that more people are interested in their health care coverage, and the need has increased.”
HMSA currently serves about 16,500 customers in East Hawaii, according to an HMSA spokeswoman. The insurer announced in March plans for a new, 20,000-square-foot building in Keaau, located at the corner of Old Volcano and Keaau-Pahoa roads. HMSA purchased the two-acre plot for just over $1 million from W.H. Shipman Ltd.
Construction on the building is anticipated to begin in August, with completion expected sometime in late 2014.
In addition to housing administrative and business office staff, the new building will also take on the staffs of two separate Hilo call centers that handle phone inquiries from customers.
Email Colin M. Stewart at email@example.com.