The American Medical Association's innovation arm is teaming up with doctors-turned-investors, including Chicago native Eric Whitaker, to launch a health insurance plan for underserved seniors, the group announced today.
Medicare Advantage plan Zing Health will be available to Cook County residents during open enrollment this fall, with coverage beginning Jan. 1. Medicare Advantage, in which private companies contract with the government to offer Medicare beneficiaries additional benefits, has been a lucrative business for insurance companies as the population ages.
Featuring local care teams rather than centralized call center operators, Zing aims to improve patient outcomes by addressing social determinants of health and helping doctors coordinate care, Health2047, the AMA's for-profit healthcare innovation company, said in a statement. The health plan is launching with an undisclosed amount of seed funding.
Zing's other founders are Whitaker, who runs Chicago-based healthcare investment firm TWG Partners, and Dr. Ken Alleyne, a West Hartford, Conn.-based orthopedic surgeon and founder of healthcare investment firm HartHaven Partners.
The pair are longtime friends and business partners. Alleyne previously served as chief medical officer of NextLevel Health, the Cook County Medicaid managed care plan led by Whitaker's wife, Dr. Cheryl Whitaker. The men are also investors in VirtualHealth, a digital tool that aims to help insurers—including NextLevel—coordinate members' care. They said their new Medicare Advantage plan also will contract with the health-tech company.
The decision to launch Zing in Cook County was due partly to the pair's existing relationships with doctors and community-based resources through NextLevel, Alleyne said. He added that the long-term goal is to expand into a national health plan.
Whitaker said Zing currently has 10 employees and he plans to hire about 45 more by year's end.
In addition to co-founding NextLevel through TWG, Whitaker launched Medicare prescription drug plan Symphonix Health, which UnitedHealth Group bought in 2016.
"A lot of insurance companies, they're in the business of insuring healthy people so they don't have to pay out for claims," Whitaker said. Zing is "different in that we want to take on diverse populations that tend to be less healthy because we have confidence we can manage the care of those individuals."
As a former University of Chicago Medical Center leader and Illinois Department of Public Health director, Whitaker has spent much of his career focused on providing healthcare to underserved populations. Conversations with Health2047 started around March 2018, well before Whitaker joined Los Angeles-based Pipeline Health in the purchase of three Chicago-area hospitals, he said.
Pipeline and Whitaker drew the ire of public officials and residents earlier this year when they announced the impending closure of Westlake Hospital in Melrose Park just two weeks after buying it, as well as West Suburban Medical Center in Oak Park and Weiss Memorial Hospital in Uptown, from Tenet Healthcare.
Whitaker said he hoped the deal would lead to a network of safety-net and community hospitals, many of which are struggling financially.
"AMA offshoot launching local Medicare Advantage plan" originally appeared in Crain's Chicago Business.