United Healthcare tests free primary care services model

United Healthcare tests free primary care services model

healthy-2-getty-crop-600x338United Healthcare, the nation’s largest health insurer, has a novel idea to cut costs: Give people more stuff for free.

The company has set up a subsidiary firm, Harken Health, that gives its members access to unlimited primary care services. Beyond visits to the doctor’s office, members have access to a 24-hour help line, a personal health coach, psychological counseling, and classes on fitness and nutrition. All for free.

So far Harken only operates in Atlanta, where it has six clinics, and Chicago with four.

Again, UnitedHealth is not doing this out of the kindness of its corporate heart. This is the same company that has said it will likely leave the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) individual marketplace next year if it can’t begin turning a profit on it.

Harken Health also operates through the PPACA marketplace, but its approach is dramatically different than other marketplace policies that UnitedHealth and other major insurers offer. Most PPACA policies are characterized by high deductibles and narrow networks that include relatively few providers.

Harken members, in contrast, have access to a handful of primary care clinics and for anything beyond primary care they have access to a large network of specialists and hospitals.

The generous primary care model is based on the hypothesis is similar to one championed by corporate wellness programs. It assumes that by keeping policyholders healthy, they will avoid major medical costs in the future.

“At the end of the day, United wants to know if this system can better control costs, as it’s a lot cheaper to prevent disease than treat one,” Liz Frayer, a benefits consultant in Atlanta, told Kaiser Health News.

Harken doctors are also salaried employees, meaning they have no financial motive to order unnecessary tests or procedures for patients.

So how much does coverage cost? Kaiser Health News profiled a Harken member, Richard Hall, 55, of Atlanta, who pays $161 a month for a plan that covers his wife and him. Kaiser notes that that policy is subsidized due to Hall’s low income, but does not say what share of the overall premium is covered by the subsidy.