Mountain View, Calif. - eHealth Inc., the parent company of eHealthInsurance Services Inc., spent $50 million developing an electronic platform to sell health insurance through the Internet. The company’s business model? Serve the growing market of uninsured and underinsured consumers with online tools and ultimate health insurance products. The Mountain View, Calif., company, plans to raise $47.1 million in an initial public offering next week. In its prospectus the market for private health insurance brokering is a mess, stating that except for large companies buying insurance in bulk, finding medical coverage is time-consuming, paper-wasting, complicated and expensive. Most individuals, families and small businesses who buy their own medical coverage find insurers using local agents who serve a single community, offering insurance from a small handful or even a single insurance carrier. Through its Web site, eHealth has sold health insurance electronically to 325,000 consumers, and points to this statistic: More than 40% of those customers were uninsured before finding the site. That means the company thinks its site, which offers 5,000 health insurance products through 150 insurers, including Aetna and UnitedHealth, can tap into an underserved and fragmented corner of the estimated $658 billion market for private medical insurance. About 17 million Americans, including self-employed people, buy their own medical insurance (as opposed to electing coverage through an employer's plan), and the company said that number is growing. A rising number of small businesses have stopped offering medical benefits to employees, forcing these people to buy their own coverage or risk life without insurance, the company said. The U.S. Census estimates 46 million Americans are uninsured, and the company said many of these people have jobs, make decent salaries and would buy their own coverage if only they could find an affordable plan. That's where eHealth's business model comes in. eHealth's site offers online rate quoting and information, health plan comparisons, and online applications linking consumers with insurers. The variety of policy offerings and efficient brokering process in theory would help consumers find cheaper coverage. As a broker, eHealth offers insurers new market opportunities, access to electronic data about consumers and simplified policy processing, which reduces costs. The company takes a percentage off the insurers' premiums. In 2005, eHealth booked $41.8 million in revenue, almost all from brokerage commissions, compared with $9.3 million in 2001. For the six months ending June 30, 2006, eHealth reported net income of $2.7 million, compared with a net loss of $209,000 for the same period a year ago. The company, led by Chief Executive Gary L. Lauer, has lost money most quarters since its 1997 founding as it sinks money into technology and marketing through direct mail, television and radio. But it hopes that by harnessing the Internet, it can grab a large share of a huge and largely untapped market. The company plans to sell 5 million shares at $10 to $12 apiece, giving the deal a proposed market cap of $271 million, and is reportedly using joint-lead managing underwriters such as Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch. The stock will trade on the Nasdaq under the symbol "EHTH." Source: Associated Press, MSN Money, Red Herring  

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