Should My Health System Launch a Health Insurance Plan?

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Here are a few things providers whose vision and strategy include launching a health plan should consider

In 1929 the stock market crashed and the US collapsed into the Great Depression. Coincidentally, it was also in 1929 that Baylor Hospital in Dallas Texas devised a plan that would provide access to health care services to patients and give patients the ability to pay for their care so the hospital could remain viable.

In the nine decades since Baylor Hospital helped create what is known today as Blue Cross, hospitals, physicians and other providers of health care services have regularly asked themselves the questions: Should we develop and own a health insurance plan? Should we take financial risk for care we provide? Should we partner with physicians and/or with a health insurer?

Since the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010, hospital and physician executives have considered these questions with new motivation. Several have jumped in, but only a few health system-sponsored plans launched in the ACA era are nearing profitability. Others have deferred, waiting to see what develops, wanting to digest lessons from Medicare’s ACO program, direct contracts with employers, and ACO arrangements with commercial payers. The latter has been difficult to achieve even for risk-motivated providers, as many dominant commercial plans are reticent to enable providers to manage risk—and in the long run, create a direct competitor. This has provided new motivation for health systems and large physician groups to evaluate a provider-owned plan.

Today’s mantra is “we are moving from volume to value!” Though the words are fresh, the concepts and concerns are much the same, as are the risks and rewards. Having served in executive roles in provider owned health plans for nearly 40 years, 19 years at Kaiser Permanente, and 21 years at Sentara Health Care, I have observed multiple cycles of providers rushing into the health plan business followed by the rapid exit of providers who fail in managing risk. Here are a few “Be’s…” providers whose vision and strategy include launching a health plan should consider:

Be cautious, but not cowardly

Be courageous, but not careless

Be cognizant, but not cocky


These “Be’s…” need some explanation.


A five-year business plan that anticipates start-up costs, operating losses and regulatorily required “risk-based capital” will give executives an “eyes-wide-open” going-in perspective. A Board-approved business plan that is both conservative and credible will plan on operating losses for several years.

When the first members are enrolled in the new health insurance plan, the operating losses will begin. Yes, every start-up health plan will experience losses for a period of time. Detailed preparation and thoughtful execution will not eliminate losses in the early years, but they will hasten the march to profitability.


Getting the right people, and the right number of people on this bus is imperative. Expert people are available, but they are probably not current members of your team. Inexperienced talent and under staffing this strategic initiative will result in disaster.

The total value of your health insurance plan includes much more than bottom line performance. Provider sponsored plans can lead the market in customer satisfaction, quality of care metrics and “total cost of care.” Table stakes for operating a health plan include enrollment, billing, claims processing and financial systems. These systems can be purchased or partnered. However, to maximize value, wise investment in population health IT should be implemented as soon as possible. State of the art population health tools will enable providers to close gaps in care and improve both health outcomes and financial performance. Later on, investing in consumer-centric digital health applications will optimize the customer experience and offer value a provider sponsored plan can bring to the market in a unique manner.

Growing the membership as fast as possible is vital. Without substantial membership, providers will have little reason to focus on changing the model of care. Rapid membership growth can occur in a variety of ways, but the best way is to win contracts for large populations. Securing a Medicaid contract, enrolling the provider’s employees and winning two or three large group commercial accounts, and Medicare Advantage/CMS ACO depending on the players in the MA space in a given market are all good strategies for rapid growth. The sequencing of membership type is less important than the rate of growth.


Given the losses suffered by providers who took risk in 1990’s, and the spotty performance of provider sponsored health plans in today’s CMS ACOs and commercial offerings, you are probably thinking, why do I think we can do better?  Being aware of other’s failures and successes will embolden Boards and CEOs to accept the risk because they recognize the rewards.

A few lessons to be learned from Kaiser include:

  • The imperative of physician leadership and commitment
  • The efficiency of integrated services
  • The clarity of the connection between quality of care and the cost of care

Lessons to be learned from provider sponsored health plans, both those that have succeeded and those that have failed, include:

  • The tolerance and patience for early losses
  • The balance between integration and separation of the health plan and the providers
  • The clarity of purpose and mission. Having a health plan to fill hospital beds is not a sustainable mission

Additional Considerations:

Beyond financial results, most provider sponsored health plans tout other benefits that speak to both the mission of the organization and the financial performance of the enterprise in total. Such benefits include, but are not limited to:

  1. Improved performance in quality, service and total cost of care
  2. Enhanced understanding of the consumer/customer
  3. Control of the premium dollar

Of these added benefits, perhaps the benefit derived from the control of the premium dollar is least intuitive and most important. Here is a simple way to think about this issue:

If XYZ Health Insurer brings in $100 of premium, they will pay a hospital about $40 for inpatient and outpatient services. If the hospital is well run, it will make 4% or $1.20 on the $40 of revenue.

However, if the hospital owns the health insurance plan, and the insurance plan is making a 2% margin on the premium of $100 ($2.00), then the enterprise will earn $3.20, 2% on the premium and 4% on the “inter-company” transfer between the owned health insurance company and the hospital. (NOTE: this is a simple example. The actual arrangements between the hospital, its owned health insurance plan, and the contract with the non-owned health insurance companies will determine the actual results, but the principle is demonstrated with the simple example.)

To be sure, the challenges in owning and operating a health insurance plan are both daunting and different from operating a hospital system. However, the rewards can be worth the effort.

One provider sponsor health insurance plan generated enough net income over a five-year period that the “dividend” to the sponsoring health care system was deployed by the system to build not just one new hospital, but three!

Nearly 90 years after Baylor created the first Blue Cross health insurance company, it merged with Scott & White Clinic, which owns a health insurance plan. Baylor Scott & White is well-positioned to thrive as a fully integrated delivery system. If your system is asking “Should we launch a health plan?” please reach out. I’d be happy to share more of the lessons I’ve learned in my decades as CEO of provider sponsored health plans and discuss your system’s opportunity.



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