By Kim Bellard, February 25, 2016
Things seem to be going well for Oscar Health, the health insurance start-up that has been wowing investors and the media since it was founded in 2012. Forbes reports that Oscar just raised $400 million in an investment round led by Fidelity, which effectively values Oscar at about $2.7b. So why do I fear that perhaps they are taking the wrong path?
I've previously expressed my concern that Oscar and some of its fellow health insurance start-ups might be more about repackaging than reinventing. I'm more concerned than ever after Bloomberg reported that Oscar is adopting a new network strategy: moving to "tight, exclusive networks with hospitals."
There's no secret why Oscar is taking this approach. It's about cost, with the expectations that narrower networks yield cost savings Closer relationships with providers and the ability to offer lower premiums without hurting quality. If that's what Oscar is after with its new network strategy, what's not to like?
Well, plenty. For one, with this strategy Oscar isn't innovating; it is buying into the strategy that most other health plans are trying to adopt. That doesn't make it a bad strategy, but playing follow-the-leaders certainly doesn't fit the cool yet disruptive image that Oscar has so carefully cultivated.
More importantly, it is the wrong strategy. For Oscar. For any health plan. It is a strategy rooted in the 1990's, if not earlier. The argument for networks, especially narrow networks, is that health plans can drive better bargains by promising more volume to specific providers. I don't have a problem with health plans driving hard bargains with providers, especially if those bargains are performance-based. What I do have a problem with is forcing consumers to use those, and only those.
I think it is great when a health plan tries to find the highest quality providers, and to get a good deal with them. What I wish they would do, though, is say, "here's the data that demonstrates their quality, and here's how much we're willing to pay them to take care of you. If you can find providers that are better, that's great; go to them, and we'll still pay the same as we'd pay the providers we recommend. No hard feelings."
In other words, let the health plan act as the concierge, not the gatekeeper.
If a consumer goes to providers who charge more than the health plan would pay their designated providers, well, there's a price for choice; consumers might have to pay extra. On the flip side, maybe the consumer should pocket some of the savings if they manage to find less expensive providers.
This approach might sound like reference pricing, because reference pricing is a start to where I think we need to go. I'd rather we put more effort into that than in narrowing consumer's choices.
Noah Lang, CEO of Stride Health, told Fast Company, "Oscar is primarily a consumer experience company." I don't think restricting choice of providers is a very good consumer experience for any health plan, and especially not for one like Oscar who prides itself on its member experience.
Oscar thinks this new approach is their future. If so, their future may be as just another health plan. And that'd be too bad.