Why the ‘insurtechs’ didn’t revolutionize health insurance–and the damage they may have done

crystal-ballIce water on hopes that many placed in ‘insurtechs’. This is the umbrella term that healthcare dubbed the upstart tech-enabled, health tech-friendly US payers which were supposed to deliver health insurance plans more efficiently (buy online!), more conveniently using apps and telehealth, with strong networks and at a lower delivery cost to consumers, from those who needed individual plans to Medicare Advantage. Around 2019-2020, these insurers gained billions in funding before going public through IPO or SPAC: Bright Health’s $500 million Series E in 2020 was only a chunk of their total $2.4 billion; Oscar Health raised $1.6 billion, Clover Health $1.3 billion. All three have struggled to stay clear of the insolvency precipice, with Friday Health Plans going over [TTA 23 June]. Bright Health Group will be exiting the insurance business after this year with the stock sale of their plans to Molina Healthcare–provided they survive to Q1 2024 [TTA 6 July]. Oscar and Clover have exited states and cut back offerings. In April, in a real retrenching, Oscar hired on Mark Bertolini, late of Aetna, pushing back a founder to an operational role. 

This Editor, in a marketing assessment for a client two years ago, believed as many did that Insurtechs Were The Future. At the very least, their practices would be adopted by the legacy insurers: easy online enrollment, lower premiums, predictive analytics, machine learning, digital documentation, online health education via apps, outsourcing areas such as customer service 24/7 and even marketing. Even those like Cigna through their Ventures arm bet some millions on insurtechs redefining payer-member relationships and payer structure, gaining better margins at profitable lines of business like Medicare Advantage (MA) and special needs plans (SNPs). After all, these plans did have people with decades of experience at insurers in their management, didn’t they, and they’d know what NOT to do. (And that’s the problem with gazing into crystal balls…eyestrain.)

Marissa Plescia’s article in MedCityNews is an excellent review on why the insurtechs’ centre did not hold. Key points made from her dive among the experts:

  • They underpriced and took heavy losses to grow their member base
  • They didn’t understand that some ‘inefficiencies’ in the health insurance market exist for reasons–perhaps not good ones, like state mandates through their departments of banking and insurance, but they exist and cannot be ignored. [Ed.–health education for MA has to be provided or at least available in written form in most if not all states]. Compliance can’t be skirted or ignored. Were they paying attention to the compliance of their plans?
  • They didn’t pay provider claims efficiently or at all [the SSM lawsuit of Bright]–a nifty way to lose networks and be sued by states, very damaging if the network wasn’t all that competitive to begin with.
  • Contracted rates with providers weren’t competitive. Were they managing risk adjusting coding well? 
  • Did they leverage sales channels beyond online such as brokers and their provider network? What about customer service?
  • The plans were not sticky enough to create some loyalty to an infamously non-loyal product

The insurtechs perhaps expected the technology to do too much–and for legacy payers to not catch up to them if they weren’t already moving there. Another problem–they (largely) were.

Disruption–but not the Clayton Christensen definition. Their disruption so far has been financial and legal (insolvency, cracked SPACs, lawsuits, share prices below $1.00, and delistings pending), loss of coverage for members; unpaid providers. With this track record, investors will avoid this category beyond the legacies. States won’t approve new plans from new companies. (This Editor believes that there are some overlooked positives such as inclusion in marketing of specialized and underserved groups, as well as some forced streamlining of processes.) There will be survivors–Alignment Health, kind of a below-the-radar operation and an afterthought in funding at $375 million, is in a few states and is mentioned. It’s also hard to bet against Bertolini leading Oscar–except that this is maybe Act V for him and he’s had his share of bunts and misses (bunt–ActiveHealth Management, misses–Healthagen, CarePass, iTriage) before his contentious departure from CVS. But in this particular widening gyre, while more revelations will be at hand, innovative newcomers in health plans won’t be seen for a long time, if ever. If the saga of airline deregulation (1980-1995) is a model, payer disruption just took a fraction of that time.

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