UnitedHealth wagers $65 million on ounce of primary-care prevention

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AUSTELL, Ga. — UnitedHealthcare is betting $65 million that it can profit by making primary care more attractive.

With little fanfare, the nation’s largest health insurer launched an independent subsidiary in January that offers unlimited free doctor visits and 24/7 access by phone. Every member gets a personal health coach to nudge them toward their goals, such as losing weight or exercising more. Mental health counseling also is provided, as are yoga, cooking, and acupuncture classes. Services are delivered in stylish clinics with hardwood floors and faux fireplaces in their lobbies.

Harken Health is available only in Chicago and Atlanta, where it covers 35,000 members who signed up this winter on the Affordable Care Act’s insurance exchanges. UnitedHealth still sells traditional plans in those cities, too.

Harken’s lush operation might seem puzzling for a cost-conscious company such as UnitedHealthcare, which said in November it lost hundreds of millions of dollars on its Obamacare plans in 2015 and threatened to drop out of the exchanges in 2017.

But it’s not crazy. Health care analysts say Harken demonstrates the insurer’s search for a better way to provide affordable care and attract more customers. Its mission is to prove that convenient, no-cost primary care, delivered with top-notch customer service, can lower hospitalization rates and overall health costs. Harken spends twice as much on primary care as an average insurer, according to the company.

 

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