Making it Simpler: Reinventing Individual Health Insurance

KISS, as a business imperative, is cited so often it’s passed beyond cliché to become background noise. Keep It Simple Stupid, however, is more of an illusive ideal than a comfortable accomplishment for most businesses. The individual health insurance industry is no exception – yet it needs to be.

 

Consumers buying medical coverage for themselves and their families lack the support network larger enterprises have. They (hopefully) are working with an independent insurance agent who understands their needs and knows the way through the maze of getting coverage, fixing billing problems or getting claims paid. But there’s no human resources department in the living room or colleagues to call upon for help in the kitchen. Worse, for those without an agent, there’s often no one to call for help than the carrier itself.

 

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Many people working in carriers’ membership service departments are quite good – once you get past the dreaded phone system. (I just dealt with a customer service rep at the health plan for my small business who solved the problem in one phone call – and was nice about it to boot).

 

The thing is, however, if you need to call for help, then something isn’t working right. Getting health insurance shouldn’t be complicated. Neither should understanding bills or explanations of benefits (EOBs). And doctors and hospitals shouldn’t have to devote so much resources and time into their interactions with health plans.

 

If Google can make searching the web clean and simple, if Apple can make a cell phone/music player/ PDA elegant and straightforward, if Visa and Mastercard can present payment histories in a relatively easy to understand manner, if Southwest can make booking a flight a breeze, then certainly health plans could simplify their processes.

 

A place to start would be with the products themselves. Each carrier describes their benefits in their own terms. Surely there’s a best practice for this kind of thing, but every carrier has its own unique and often idiosyncratic method. The result: agents (and their clients) devote hours to creating their own apples-to-apples comparisons.

 

There are the conspiracy theorists out there who believe this is done to make it more difficult for consumers to understand what they’re buying. I believe their wrong: why assume bad intent when indifference or incompetence explains the situation? When it comes to presenting benefits I think it’s more a case of an inward orientation with a dash of pride of authorship thrown in.

 

Or take provider directories. Many have moved online, but again, there’s a best practice out there that would make finding your doctor even easier. Or claim forms. Every doctor I see (and at my age it’s more than one, now) complains about the paper work. There have been efforts to move claim submittals online, but the problems with the process are more than technical. There’s also a need to simply make the process simpler. There’s a place for uniqueness. Commodity material is rarely that place.

 

Instead, the focus needs to be on something somewhat foreign to most health plans: design. Design has become a hot business concept. Magazines like Fast Company, Inc., Fortune fawn over the concept and those who excel at it. Products like iPods and half the house wares at Target are held up as icons of a new business paradigm.

 

Yet design shouldn’t be the sole purview of gadget manufacturers or fashion designers. Processes can be well designed, too; so can forms. But good design will only come to the work flows and materials of health plans if it’s a priority of their leadership. And that takes some courage. It’s not easy to make being easy a corporate priority, especially when your industry is under fire.

 

Yet those attacks can be seen as a motivator for simplification, too. For example, individual health plans are going to have change the way they underwrite applications. Their ability to discover fraudulent applications is going to be extremely limited once lawmakers get done reforming the rescission process. With no back-up, the importance of underwriting at the front-end becomes even more critical than it already is.

 

This is a great opportunity to make enrollment applications simpler. Again, there are those who claim the applications are complicated to enable carriers to play “gotcha” with their members who later incur claims. They have no facts to back this up, but that hardly matters, especially when these critics get a lot of attention just for making the claim. Which means carriers are going to have to deal with this charge for quite awhile – or until something changes.

 

(What’s more likely to blame for complex applications is the same dynamic that haunts anything created by committee. When lawyers, underwriters, actuaries, and business managers sit down to create a form – especially one that needs to meet regulatory standards – that form is going to be bloated, complicated and annoying. No ulterior motive is required.)

 

Instead of spending time repeatedly repudiating the charge, however, health plans would be better served to move beyond it. The fact is, applications are more cumbersome and complicated than they should be. Carriers should work with their Departments of Insurance and an outside design consultant to come up with standardized and, even more importantly, simplified underwriting forms. The forms should focus on making it as easy as possible for consumers to provide enough information for the carriers to make their underwriting decisions.

 

And that should be the explicit goal: easy sufficiency. This, in turn, means using simple language in a clear, concise manner. It means laying out the questions in a manner that flows and avoids asking for the same information repeatedly. It’s a lot easier to describe than do (I know, I tried once), but if made a priority, it’s doable.

 

When lawmakers, prosecutors and others are lobbing grenades your way it might be counter-intuitive to use the situation to focus on design. In reality, simplifying the touch points where consumers, agents and medical providers interact with the carrier is an extremely visible way of demonstrating a commitment to change. As important, it’s a vehicle for getting in front of the change that is inevitable.

Executing the Basics: Reinventing Individual Health Insurance

The best strategy in the game, the most inspiring vision in the industry means nothing without execution. And if an organization isn’t executing the basic components of the business, implementing something fancy — culture change, a new business model — isn’t going to get very far.

Executing the basics is the least exciting critical component of any successful business. By definition, a successful business has proven itself. It’s an ongoing concern. Leaders like to lead and that usually involves moving in new, more exciting directions. Over time, attention to the nuts and bolts can wane. The basics become a source for savings. The attention moves from serving the customer to an internal focus on efficiency. After all, resources need to be freed up to fund those new initiatives.

In the context of individual health insurance, the basics include processing applications, issuing bills, paying claims, contracting with doctors, appointing agents, and answering the phone. Most carriers do an adequate job on these items most of the time. All carriers do a lousy job on some of these at some time. Those osciallations in performance are normal and to be expected. What’s unacceptable is that “adequate” is, well, acceptable. Carriers will talk about delivering first class customer service, being partners with their providers and producers, but few, if any, consistently succeed.

The problem, I believe, is two-fold: an inability to measure the return on investment of better service; and an unwillingness for competitors to cooperate.

Providing services, whether it’s underwriting applications, answering questions from insureds and their physicians, or paying commissions, costs money. These dollars can be measured, tallied and monitored. Given the need to keep coverage affordable, the appropriate goal for carriers is to provide these services as efficiently (meaning at the lowest cost) as possible.

These services also have benefits in the form of customer satisfaction, increased efficiencies at the partner level (less time spent in doctors offices tracking down an answer freeing up more time to work with patients), and a negative public image. The problem is that dollars are a lot easier to track than satisfaction or efficiency in someone else’s office. So when carriers do a cost benefit analysis on a new IVR system (IVRs are those automated “press 1” or “say ‘billing'” phone routing systems) they can measure the savings in personnel costs, but they lack the tools to measure the increased frustration members feel when unable to make the artificial (un)intelligence get them to the right place.

Health plans aren’t the only industry with frustrating phone systems. Sprint, AT&T, Time Warner, DirecTV and Verizon are a few others with IVRs deserving of a shout-out — or shut down, depending on your point of view. But cable and phone utilities are not the standard to which carriers should hold themselves. Nor should the standard be Nordstrom or Starbucks. It should be what consumers define as good customer service, doctors define as good physician service, and producers define as good agent service.

Carriers need to examine their basic operations from the consumer point of view. They need to define customer expectations and then think about ways to deliver those services in a cost-effective way that meets those expectations.

This means shifting the focus from an internal point-of-view to one that looks at operations through the eyes of the consumer (or physician or agent). This isn’t hard: every officer in every health plan should be required to call their customer service departments on a monthly basis. They should get a monthly bill and call in with a question. They should receive an Explanation of Benefits (EOBs) and be asked how much and to whom they would cut a check if it was for real. They should call in to the pre-authorization phone line and follow-up on an application. In other words, they should walk in their customer shoes at least monthly. Then, on a quarterly basis, their staff meetings should focus on what they experienced.

There’s other techniques that work. For example, executives and managers should be required to plug in and listen to phone calls between their service reps and customers. Not occasionally, but in a regular, disciplined way.

Carriers also need to find ways to quantify something more than dollars. Perhaps bonuses should be impacted by customer satisfaction survey results or even public surveys. Or, perhaps they should ask someone. Fortunately for carriers, there’s too many economists in the world with too little to do. Certainly some of them have come up with mathematical formulas for measuring intangibles. Give them a call — they’re hungry for someone to talk to. Make your CFOs sit down with them and come up with a formula that works.

And then share the results. Which is the other part of the challenge. Most businesses tend to think that everything they do must be confidential and proprietary. The market is a jungle and every advantage needs to be exploited to survive. In this mindset, advantages are to be hoarded, not diluted by sharing.

The problem is that most customers don’t really care about a lot of these proprietary advantages. An example from a book I read, but now forget the title, describes the foolishness of the auto industry when lawmakers required them to incorporate catalytic converters into their cars. Each auto maker spent many millions of dollars to invent and implement their own design. Yet who has ever purchased a car because of its catalytic converter? The industry could have redirected most of those dollars to features that matter if they had come together and designed a standard converter they all could have used.

This concept of standardizing and sharing resources is much more acceptable in the software world where open source systems like Linux and MySQL are widely used. It’s foreign to most companies, including carriers. 

Yet the opportunity to standardize and share resources is huge in the industry. Applications for coverage, claim forms, EOBs, bills, commission statements aren’t competitive advantages — their Babel-like diversity is merely a source of frustration for users. Better yet, by standardizing them, entrepreneurs could develop tools to increase efficiency for the carriers and convenience for consumers.

Consider: most carriers currently accept online applications from large producers like eHealthinsurance. Yet, as large as eHealthinsurance’s production is, it represents a small percentage of carriers’ overall sales. Why create mechanisms that benefit just a few agencies? Instead, carriers should agree on standards for quoting and case submission systems that works for all health plans in all states. These standards should be freely distributed as open-source software. eHealthinsurance may compete in the market based on its quoting system, but carriers don’t. By creating a publishing low- or no-cost software carriers can more easily implement customer friendly services like automated underwriting, immediate issuance of membership cards and the like.

Standardization doesn’t mean customization isn’t allowed. There are several flavors of Linux commercially available. Similarly, entrepreneurs could take the open-source quoting/submittal software and package them, adding new interfaces and functionality. So long as carriers standardize around the basics, however, they should all save money, increase efficiency and improve customer satisfaction with the industry as a whole. They could then use the freed-up funds to better compete on what does matter to consumers: benefit design, cost of coverage, and the like.

Would this kind of cooperation be legal? It depends on how it’s approached. The standards negotiations can be outsourced to an independent third party. Or they can be convened under the auspices of regulators. In California, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner has done something similar and has expressed an interest in helping carriers appropriately address common challenges. So yes, it can be done legally.

Attending to the basics is not exciting, but it can be impactful. Perhaps more importantly, invigorating innovations will fail unless they’re built on a strong foundation. So if the individual health insurance industry is going to reinvent itself, the nuts-and-bolts of the business is where it has to begin.