Alaska is insurance company's testing ground for health portal

Photo courtesy MGN Online Image Id: 353462 11/22/2016

ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - With a long-term goal of reducing the burden on consumers of the cost of health care, Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alaska has started a pilot program in Alaska to help connect its members with resources to improve their healthcare experience.

The company’s president announced the program, “Premera Pulse” Tuesday. It’s a system that doesn’t require a download – so it’s not even something you’d call an app – that works primarily via text message, and can remind customers when they’re due for an annual checkup or ask them if they want a copy of their medication records after they’ve checked in for a doctor’s appointment.

Jim Grazko, the president of Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alaska, says it’s part of the evolution of insurance providers to become a proactive part of a solution to the high cost of health care. “I think in past years and decades, insurance companies were largely paying claims, providing the safety net that people need to guard against very large cost, but I think that the way that the system is moving now, insurance companies have a responsibility, and a role to play in terms of being part of the solution,” Grazko said.

He also says Alaskans’ adaptability to new technology, and smaller market size, made it a perfect testing ground for the idea, which has already been activated by more than 9,200 people in Alaska, Grazko said.

“When I first heard about this, through our innovation lab, our test kitchen, I raised my hand, I said, ‘You know what, I think this would be perfect for Alaska, because people here do adopt technology fairly quickly, and it’s a smaller market than say in Washington where we have jumbo large accounts. Here the accounts tend to be smaller and average size and it’s more of a contained market, so we could observe it more closely through the pilot phase,” Grazko said Tuesday.

He says the company’s “Test Kitchen” has started crowdsourcing ideas from employees and from outside the company to improve the system.

He says the participation rate is higher than expected, even in a high tech-adopting state like Alaska. Grazko says of the people who have simply activated the service, more than 75 percent have actually used it to do things like schedule appointments or download their medication history.

He hopes that long-term, it will encourage people to use their preventive benefits, which he says Alaskans access at a lower rate than other states. An increase there, Grazko says, will eventually lead to healthier people and lower costs across the health care system.

“I think it really does sort of point people in the right direction in terms of getting the preventive work done up front that will prevent more expensive, more costly, more life-threatening problems down the road,” he said.

When it comes to the cost of health care to Alaskans, Grazko says the cost ebbs and flows.

“I think costs, just medical care costs in general are going to continue to go up,” Grazko said. But he says the state’s reinsurance program helped the company keep some portions of their market from having rate increases.

Grazko says before the state’s reinsurance program was passed, the company would have had to raise rates by about 42 percent, but after the state took on some of the costs, increases to Premera customers were only about 7 percent.

“That’s a massive impact, and it would be that way for any carrier that chose to come in and sell individual coverage, to the point where other states, Washington being one of them, but around the country, are looking at putting in reinsurance pools to really keep the market sustainable over the long haul,” Grazko said.

While the Premera Pulse program is only available in Alaska right now, Grazko said the company is hoping to expand it to Washington State soon, and hopes to be able to include a cost-comparison feature that will factor a member’s individual health coverage plan with the providers for as accurate an estimate as possible.

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