Banner|Aetna, a joint health insurance venture owned by Banner Health and Aetna, is entering a partnership with Virta Health, a company that offers personalized treatment for those with type 2 diabetes.
The treatment, which combines specialized nutrition plans and virtual care, will be available to Banner|Aetna's eligible members of fully insured and administrative services only groups, the company said Wednesday.
As a physician, Dr. Robert Groves, chief medical officer at Banner|Aetna, said he was very skeptical at first that Virta could fix what is seen as a chronic and progressive disease.
"It just seemed impossible that anyone was claiming they could stop that inevitable downward slide," he said. "It was the rare patient, in my experience, who would be able to take control of their glucose and begin to reverse the process."
However, after conducting a year-long free pilot for Banner|Aetna members, Groves said Virta met all its promised criteria of reducing blood sugar levels, weight and patient use of anti-diabetic medication.
In its peer-reviewed clinical trial, Virta found that in the span of two years, participants' average daily insulin dosage was reduced by 81%, 67% of patients' diabetes-related prescriptions were eliminated and patients experienced 10% body weight loss.
Virta's therapy is essentially a lifestyle intervention that uses a highly-customized low carbohydrate diet, coaching and technology, said Kevin Kumler, the company's president.
Working as a virtual extension of Banner Health, Kumler said Virta guides patients through a full medical intake to ensure they are a good fit for the program. Then, the company sends resources, including recipes, supplemental nutrition and durable medical equipment like scales and monitors to track biomarkers, he said.
Participants are also introduced to a coach who will talk with them daily, both remotely and asynchronously, to understand their acute needs, their diet and problem areas in order to customize an approach that will help patients get off their medication.
During Virta's clinical trial, 83% of participants were still in the program after a year, and 74% remained after two years, Kumler said.
The American Diabetes Association, among other entities and various studies in recent years, has acknowledged the effectiveness of a low carbohydrate strategy in managing diabetes, Groves said.
At first, Virta's program will only be available to Banner|Aetna members in Arizona, though the companies plan to expand the offering to other states once reporting requirements are fulfilled.
Due to COVID-19's associated risks for those with diabetes and the growing nature of the disease, Groves said the rollout of this partnership is important as an aggressive way to help individuals manage their blood glucose.
In Arizona, one in ten people have type 2 diabetes and around one-third are prediabetic, he said.
Banner|Aetna self-funded employer groups will also have access to Virta's prediabetes and obesity reversal treatments, which use the same metabolic health-focused care model.