A new collaboration between the insurer MetroPlus, Amazon Web Services, Bain & Co. and the nonprofit AirNYC has helped the health plan rapidly connect with its most vulnerable members to check on their needs and keep them out of the hospital.
In March MetroPlus set out to identify all of its members who were at high risk of being hospitalized during the Covid-19 pandemic so it could connect them to medical and social services.
The nonprofit insurer, which is part of NYC Health + Hospitals, produced a list of about 85,000 members whom it wanted to contact. Even if these individuals didn't contract Covid-19, government guidelines encouraging people to stay at home and the closure of doctors' offices could prevent them from getting treatment for a chronic condition or refilling a prescription.
The insurer began assigning members to its care managers with a plan to call members, which could have taken about three months.
"We couldn't afford to have them not have their blood-pressure medication," said Dr. Amanda Parsons, the health plan's deputy chief medical officer. "We were worried people were languishing at home in some kind of acute distress and afraid to go out to their primary care providers."
Then MetroPlus connected to Amazon Web Services and Bain & Co. through the NYC Covid-19 Rapid Response Coalition, a collaboration among health care providers, payers, social services groups, technology companies and other firms that formed in March to help solve problems associated with the pandemic.
Amazon volunteered to build MetroPlus a chat bot that could reach members by text message and direct them to a questionnaire about their needs. Consultants from Bain & Co. helped with project management and helped determine which messages resonated best with recipients.
Using the texting program, MetroPlus reached 54,000 members, with 9% of that group engaging with the chat bot. About half of those people, around 2,700, shared one or more medical or social needs with the insurer. About 1,500 members were connected to MetroPlus or its nonprofit partner, AirNYC, through the program.
For three weeks in April, AirNYC, a nonprofit in the South Bronx that helps people manage chronic conditions, volunteered to assist members who needed help getting food or unemployment benefits.
MetroPlus worked with tech company NowPow to find nonprofit agencies and food pantries that were operating and able to help.
Parsons said she believes MetroPlus will be able to continue using the tool even when its work with Amazon ends.
"They taught us how to fish as opposed to being dependent on them and their software," Parsons said.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos recently highlighted the work in his annual shareholder letter. The company plans to publish the code it used for the project so others can use chat bots to help hard-to-reach people, said Eric Zimmerman, a startup business development manager on Amazon Web Services' health care and life sciences team.
Amazon is now piloting a similar program with Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn.
One major limitation is that while the technology can help insurers make referrals, city nonprofits need to be able to carry out their work. Food pantries and other organizations have been stretched thin by a surge in demand but have limited protective gear to keep their workers safe.
These agencies will need access to Covid-19 testing to keep their employees working and isolate individuals who are sick, said Shoshanah Brown, founder and CEO of AirNYC.
"We have to invest in the social service providers," Brown said. "Our ability to serve vulnerable populations is only going to be as strong as those organizations."
This article originally appeared in our sister publication Crain's New York Business.