Zing Health changes Medicare benefit for minority populations

Zing Health changes Medicare benefit for minority populations

Medicare is a complex topic for even the most savvy consumer, but for chronically underserved populations, it’s a maze. To help, Zing Health was founded in 2019 by two African-American doctors, Eric E. Whitaker, MD, MPHand Kenneth Alleyne, MD. Their mission? Provide collaborative, community-driven Medicare Advantage plans to historically underserved populations.

What is a Medicare Advantage plan?

Medicare Advantage plans, called Medicare Part C, are offered by private insurance companies. They combine the offerings of Medicare Part A and B plans, which are offered by the government, along with additional benefits. These additional benefits may include things like dental insurance, vision insurance, and prescription drug insurance.

We sat down with Whitaker and explored how Zing Health is changing the face of Medicare for its clients.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Verywell Health: What was the catalyst for the creation of Zing Health?

Dr. Whitaker: I’m a physician by training, and my area of ​​work—whether it’s clinical care research or program development—has really focused on various vulnerable populations. And I’m also a serial entrepreneur. Zing is the third health insurance company I’ve been involved with since 2012. I started working on it in 2017 and the company started in 2019.

Looking at the data on African Americans, many health disparities were present. A 2017 study showed that African American seniors on Medicare Advantage plans are 64% more likely than white people to be readmitted to hospitals within a month of surgery.

In the same study, data showed that among whites, Medicare Advantage reduced the likelihood of hospital readmissions within 30 days by 12% compared to traditional health insurance. For African Americans, Medicare Advantage actually increase this rate of 11%. When you look at the cost of readmission, that’s about $14,400 per incident on average.

We decided to start this company, founded by two African American doctors, to focus on diverse populations, which frankly many larger health plans tend not to target. They are seen as harder to work with and sicker. Given our experiences as a leadership team, we can make a big difference.

Verywell Health: Do you think the diverse populations you serve view Medicare Advantage plans as something out of reach?

Dr. Whitaker: What we found out is that they don’t get it. Health insurance is a complicated thing. Our inside salespeople close the sale 90% of the time when they explain all the benefits of Medicare Advantage. But it can take up to three hours to explain everything and really get people to understand and trust.

This is the difference with Zing Health. Right from the start, we have an educational sales process that really helps ease the worries and fears of potential enrollees. And once they sign up, we have a culturally competent call center that understands that population. Our health services department and our care managers are closely involved and understand the population. Eight percent of our workforce is African American or Hispanic. We can talk to people and build trust in a way that other health insurance plans don’t.

Verywell Health: What are the three main social determinants of health (environmental and social factors that influence a person’s health) that Medicare does not take into account?

Dr. Whitaker: In my experience, transportation is a big deal for patients to get to doctor’s appointments, subspecialty appointments, or the pharmacy. One of the things we do in designing our benefits is trying to meet the transportation needs of our members.

Another thing that has become evident, especially during the pandemic, is food insecurity. Starting January 1, in our perks design, we started including a food card. As a company, we contribute to food pantries, but we’ve found this to be a fairly consistent need among our population.

The third big thing we found was also highlighted by the pandemic: social isolation. COVID has led to many seniors staying home and disconnected from their families. So we started a program for our registrants where they can get between 30 and 60 hours from someone who can come to their house and do something like play checkers or chess. They can help cook or drive this subscriber to the grocery store or the pharmacy. It’s really like a rent-a-parent program to help members stay in their homes.

Some of our registrants simply call to speak to our staff on the phone. They really want to be in contact with someone.

Very good health: How does Zing Health bring these initiatives to life?

Dr. Whitaker: There is a care team responsible for each registrant. One of the things we’re trying to do right off the bat is to stratify the population to understand who has more needs than others. Being able to connect them to the healthcare system and get people through the appropriate door instead of the emergency room is key.

This care team helps us meet social needs and find the resources and information they need.

Very good health: Where is Zing Health available and where do you grow?

Dr. Whitaker: We are currently present in 17 counties in three states: Michigan, Indiana and Illinois. We’re looking at potentially expanding to a few more states in 2023, but we’re still doing groundwork to make sure we’re going to places that have the demographics we want to serve.

Very good health: How does Zing Health reach your target demographic?

Dr. Whitaker: We have a team of 10 internal sales agents and they are down to earth. They go to health fairs in the community, to food pantries, they see members face to face.

It’s interesting; I mentioned that trust is a big thing. We find that our in-house agents have higher conversion rates than third-party brokers and distributors. More importantly, they stay with us. There is not a lot of turnover in the membership, which is bad for the members and bad for the business. We want to have members that we can follow over a long period of time because we believe that’s when we can have the best interventions and get the health outcomes we need.