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On the heels of a coordinated care agreement with Anthem, St. Louis-based Mercy is partnering with another health insurer.

On Thursday, the health system announced it was entering into an agreement with Louisville, Kentucky-based Humana to expand patient access to virtual health resources.

Per the new agreement, Humana’s Medicare Advantage members who are patients at Mercy facilities and physician practices will gain in-network access to Mercy Virtual. Staffed with more than 300 clinicians, Mercy Virtual offers 24/7 telehealth services, including virtual primary care at home.

In addition, the agreement links provider reimbursement to quality of care, shifting the payment model for Mercy physicians from fee-for-service to value-based compensation.

“Mercy is committed to working with our communities to improve healthcare while also reducing the total cost of care,” said Shannon Sock, Mercy’s executive vice president, chief strategist and CFO, in a news release. “Strong payer relationships, like this one with Humana, will help in our long-term journey to provide more seamless care for our patients. Together we can make a real difference for patients, which is especially critical during this pandemic.”

The new agreement brings together an insurer with a sizeable membership and a vast healthcare organization.

Mercy includes more than 40 acute care, managed and specialty hospitals, urgent care locations, imaging centers and pharmacies, as well as 4,000 primary and specialty care clinicians in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. And, as of January, Humana’s Medicare Advantage membership totaled more than 4.8 million.

“This agreement unites two organizations striving to offer care that is more accessible, personalized and coordinated — a commitment that is more important than ever right now,” said Jeremy Gaskill, Humana regional Medicare president, in a news release.

The news of the partnership between Humana and Mercy comes just a few weeks after the health system entered into a cooperative care agreement with Anthem. That partnership includes a closer alignment between clinical care and reimbursement as well as increased data flow between Mercy and Anthem.

As the healthcare industry moves toward value-based care, provider-payer partnerships that aim to improve care quality have become more popular.

For example, at the end of last year, Salt Lake City-based Intermountain Healthcare and UnitedHealthcare established an accountable care organization with the goal of improving care coordination and health outcomes for the payer’s Medicare Advantage members. In another instance, Butler Hospital, a mental health facility, partnered with Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island to reduce hospital readmissions.

“If either a payer or provider is looking to fill a gap and expand optionality of services for partners or members, these types of innovative partnerships are beneficial because they provide both parties an opportunity to quickly refine and build versus recreating the wheel,” said Nick Donkar, PricewaterhouseCoopers’ health services deals leader. “This strategy enables a win-win solution in short order.”

Provider-payer partnerships will likely continue into the future to help both entities fill gaps as they think about improving care in a virtual environment, he said.

Photo: Gerasimov174, Getty Images

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Humana and IBM Watson Health are collaborating to provide the insurer’s Employer Group members with access to a conversational AI solution.

The solution, called the IBM Watson Assistant for Health Benefits, is an AI-enabled, cloud-based virtual assistant. The AI assistant gives users information about member benefits, coverage, claims, referrals and healthcare cost estimates, said an IBM Watson Health spokeswomen, who declined to be named, in an email.

The solution will be made available to all members of the Louisville, Kentucky-based payer’s Employer Group, which includes 1.3 million medical and 1.8 million dental members.

IBM is not the only tech giant that is using AI chatbot technology to make inroads in healthcare. Microsoft, for example, has been popular among insurers and providers alike, launching triage chatbots and other AI technology. For IBM, it also affords the chance to prove its value in offering AI services dedicated to healthcare — it stumbled in 2017 in its loftier vision to use the technology to one day revolutionize cancer care and more recently in 2019 when it abandoned the AI product meant to speed up drug discovery.

But Humana believes that IBM Watson Health’s AI assistant will provide several benefits to health plan members, said a spokesman for the insurer, who declined to be named, in an email. Specifically, it will provide personalized answers to questions from members.

“Customers want us to make it easy, meet on their terms, and save them time,” he said. “The Watson [Assistant for Health Benefits] offers immediate answers to the majority of customer questions without [them] having to call in for help.”

In addition, the solution can aid in the move toward price transparency, which is now a part of federal regulations for insurers. Beginning Jan. 1, 2023, insurers must disclose negotiated rates and provide estimates of patient out-of-pocket costs for 500 services and items per a federal rule finalized in October. Payers must make that information publicly available for all items and services starting Jan. 1, 2024.

The IBM AI assistant’s cost transparency tool, which uses historical claims and provider data to calculate cost estimates for members, will help the insurer comply with the federal rule.

This is not the first time Humana and Armonk, New York-based IBM Watson Health have partnered on AI technology. The companies developed the Provider Services Conversational Voice Agent with Watson, which was made available to healthcare providers in 2019.

“Given the success, both parties see considerable value in investing in the co-creation of a new, cloud-native, healthcare-specific product,” said the Humana spokesman. “IBM has the technical experience to optimize the AI platform and Humana has the business expertise to bring forward the desired customer experiences.”

The collaboration between the payer and technology company is coming as the use of AI chatbots is soaring.

Though interest in AI-powered digital assistants was growing prior to 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated its use. Companies, like chatbot and voice bot company Syllable, found themselves overwhelmed by demand, and health systems like Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and Springfield, Illinois-based Memorial Health System quickly developed and deployed the technology.

AI-powered chatbot use is expected to grow and continue to shape healthcare in 2021.

Photo: Gerasimov174, Getty Images

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