The numerous changes in the healthcare sector are forcing stakeholders to develop new business models to prosper, to survive. Among health insurers, this means one thing: diversification. Health reform was the nail in the coffin of yesterday’s business model, a model that had no restrictions on margins, a model where payers sold to businesses, not individuals. Tomorrow’s strategy for payers is still a work in process but one thing is clear, its foundational elements will be consumers, technology and data. The emerging world of big data in healthcare is providing payers with new potential ways to make profits. Beyond the promise of efficiencies, some payers are beginning to look closely at harnessing the flow of clinical, claims and administrative data to allow for the creation of stand-alone business opportunities.  Specifically, information exchange will grow in importance in 2012 and beyond as value-based payment models rely to increasing extents on the availability of diverse types of data at the point of care.

So why have payers been so cautious to jump on board and fund HIE’s?

The answer is multi-faceted. First and foremost is simply the issue that many a provider is uncomfortable with a payer having direct access to clinical data and is thus unwilling to share such data with an HIE that has payer involvement. Second is the business uncertainty at this early stage of HIE maturity. The HIE market remains very dynamic and there is a lot of uncertainty as to where this market will eventually lead. Before putting some parameters around the direction of payer-involvement in the HIE market, it bears a quick run-through of what the different models of payer involvement look like today.

Infrastructure Play
Axolotl and Medicity are the clear leaders in the HIE software market. Both were acquired in 2010 by big insurers (Axolotl by United Health Group, which was folded into the Optum Division and Medicity by Aetna) and continue to dominate the HIE landscape. Both UHG/Optum and Aetna are clearly looking to build out new lines of business, in this case healthcare IT, where the opportunities for future growth and expansion are promising. Their investments are already paying big dividends: In a telling sign of the direction of this market, Optum has actually begun to grow faster than UHG’s main insurance business.

The investments these insurers have made in HIT are significant and ones that only the biggest national players will have the appetite for. Kaiser’s walled garden, in-house approach effectively rules them out of this kind of play. Other payers have not shown signs of moving towards owning their own HIE solution, or making other major bets on HIT…yet. Humana and Cigna have only helped out by funding pilots to date. Despite a national brand and association, the Blues fit into their own category because of the state-based nature of their business structure. They are certainly not slouching in the HIE race though as the next section explains. Chilmark has also heard murmuring around the water cooler about some potential partnerships on a more national scale in 2012, so again only time will confirm these rumors.

Conclusion: It may be too late for other payers to get in on the HIE market via acquisition of a leading vendor as few independent vendors remain. Lumeris, with three regional Blues acquired NaviNet this week. This acquisition may provide a non-traditional route to the same end-point, purchasing the network to build-out future pipes for numerous data types. Further crystallization in the HIE marketplace as well as more evidence from operational systems will help them make a bet on a particular vendor.

Entirely Payer Funded
These are HIE’s that are exclusively funded by payers. As it stands now, this is a pretty lonely space, as providers continue to be skeptical of payer intentions and there remains a dearth of conclusive proof of return on investment (ROI), more studies like Humana’s with WHIE will only help. However, some early movers have already tasted success with this approach, the most prominent being Availity, a Florida-based collaboration between two Blues plans, Humana and WellPoint. Their business model is simple: Payer contributions help to get the data flow and integration efforts underway, providers receive a base set of information access services for free, and pay for premium business services such as revenue cycle management and practice management tools. The value equation for providers has been enough to keep Availity in the black to date. They’ve gone one step further and it looks like Availity will be licensing this to other Blues plans around the country as well. While this work is certainly laudatory, Chilmark is skeptical that this level of collaboration will occur widely today (Availity began in 2001). While it’s possible for a national payer to partner with local plans to get an HIE off the ground, these typically include other intermediaries for purposes of getting buy-in from other stakeholders (these are insurance companies, after all), skin-in-the-game and governance. Moreover, because the ROI in HIE can be somewhat invisible, appearing in efficiencies and reduced costs for payers and providers, payers feel more comfortable sharing the investment.

Conclusion: Aside from emerging collaborations between Blues plans and some provider organizations (e.g. Catholic Healthcare West and Blue Cross of California), we foresee little progress here. For big payers considering an acquisition play, investing in one-off models is quickly becoming redundant; for local plans it makes more sense to share the load with non-payers.

This post first appeared at Chilmark Research.

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