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Aetna Shows the Way

Years ago, with heavyweights like UnitedHealth (UNH - Get Report) still on the sidelines, Aetna (AET - Get Report) made an unsung but prescient move.

The Hartford, Conn., insurer started promoting consumer-driven health care plans. The offerings typically balance high deductibles with low monthly payments, in a bid to appeal to some of America's millions of uninsured workers.

It wasn't easy. Ronald Williams, now the company's CEO, felt like he was selling televisions before their invention.

"We didn't have the language to describe it," he recalls. "So the language got in the way of the solution."

Undaunted, Aetna set out to become more fluent. By 2001 -- Williams' first year at the company -- Aetna had jumped into the market. The company stood out as the only national health insurer in a group of scrappy upstarts. Other major insurers avoided the scene, only later venturing in by snatching up some early CDHP pioneers down the road.

"I remember when they laughed when we talked about consumerism," Williams says. "I'm so thrilled that our competitors today have embraced it. ... It's gratifying."

These days, UnitedHealth likes to present itself as a leader of the consumerism movement. Thanks to acquisitions, the company ranks as the largest player in the game. Moreover, the company has made a name for itself as a visionary force in the health care arena as a whole.

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