This Oscar Is No Grouch: Can Oscar Health Succeed in Making Health Insurance Fun?

By Kate Greenwood

Cross-Posted at Health Reform Watch

On Wednesday night, I went to a panel presentation sponsored by the group NYC Health Business Leaders on the roll out of New York State’s health insurance exchange.  Among the speakers was Mario Schlosser, the co-founder and co-CEO of the venture-capital-backed start-up health insurance company Oscar Health, which offers a full range of plans through New York’s exchange.  As NPR reportedlast month in a story about Oscar, “it’s been years since a new, for-profit health insurance company launched in the U.S.”, but the Affordable Care Act created a window of opportunity for new entrants.

Schlosser began his talk by giving us a tour of his personal account on Oscar’s website, www.hioscar.com.  Among other things, he showed us the Facebook-like timeline, updated in real time, which tracks his two young children’s many visits to the pediatrician.  He typed “my tummy hurts” into the site’s search engine and the site provided information on what might be wrong and on where he might turn for help, ranging from a pharmacist to a gastroenterologist, with cost estimates for each option.  Additional searches yielded information on covered podiatrists accepting new patients with offices near his apartment and on the out-of-pocket cost of a prescription for diazepam (which was zero, since there is no co-payment for generic drugs for Oscar enrollees).

As an audience member noted, none of this is new exactly.  What is new is to have this kind of data-driven, state-of-the-art user experience being offered by a health insurer.  Schlosser told the audience that Oscar’s pharmacy benefit manager and other vendors are providing the company with real-time data that other insurers have not demanded.  And, according to Schlosser, Oscar’s customers are responding.  Nearly all of them have used the company’s website.  A surprising five percent of them use the company’s website every day.

In addition to an improved user experience that incorporates increased price transparency, Oscar heavily emphasizes telemedicine, with the goal of giving every customer the feeling of having “a doctor in the family.”  As Forbes reported last year, Oscar has “a unique partnership with the telemedicine company TeleDoc” which will allow its customers to speak to a doctor at any time of the day or night without incurring any out-of-pocket expense.  With regard to the physicians in Oscar’s network, Schlosser explained that the company does not intend to incentivize or require physician compliance with quality measures, as some insurers do.  Oscar will instead use its core function—reimbursement—to encourage, for example, email and phone communications between doctors and their patients.

Oscar’s service area is currently limited to New York’s nine downstate counties, but the company hopes to expand.  It will be very interesting to see if it succeeds.  Schlosser emphasized that Oscar has its genesis in the frustration that he and his co-founders felt dealing with their previous employer-provided health insurance plans.  He joked about Explanation of Benefits forms that do anything but explain what your benefits are.  The idea of putting these frustrations in the rear-view mirror is a very attractive one.

In the end, Oscar’s success may hinge on its ability to earn and sustain its customers’ trust.  Will customers trust the advice given to them by an insurance company-paid doctor whom they have never met?  Will they trust that the physicians Oscar’s website directs them to are chosen with customers’ interests in mind?  Will they trust Oscar to use the additional data it collects in ways that serve, or at least do not harm, their interests?  An audience member’s joking reference to the National Security Agency—Schlosser responded with a smile that one of Oscar’s employees in fact did use to work for the NSA—suggests that I was not the only one thinking about questions of data and trust.

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