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More health insurers invest in mobile apps

Giants like Blue Cross Blue Shield, Aetna and Humana target smartphone access.

Screenshots of the iOS mobile apps for three major insurers. (Credit: Apple)Screenshots of the iOS mobile apps for three major insurers. (Credit: Apple)

Americans aren't rushing to use smartphone apps from their insurance companies. But in the age of high deductibles and chronic disease management, web and mobile apps may help with consumer empowerment and wellness.

There are a range of mobile app options insurers are offering, with everything from provider directories to personalized cost-sharing information and rewards for health activities.

There's also a wide spectrum of consumer sentiment. "This is a Rolls Royce," one consumer wrote in iTunes about a provider-sponsored health plan's app. "I think the people who set up the Obamacare website practiced first on this app," wrote another consumer in iTunes, about an East Coast Blue Cross Blue Shield insurer's health plan app.

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Insurers need to think about the kind of experience they're offering through the app, said Kim Jacobs, vice president of strategic business development, consumer innovation and commercial strategy & performance at UPMC Health Plan, the insurance arm of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Most people don't wake up and think about how they can interact with their health plan, on a smartphone or in any other way, Jacobs said.

The goal of a health plan app and web portal, he argues, should be to give people a health plan experience similar to "what they've become accustomed to in the digital retail world."

The pitfall of some health plan apps is that they're not really improving on the original health plan experience, which of course isn't always pleasant for people navigating provider networks, prior authorizations for drugs or tests, or paying bills. Health plan apps can address these shortcomings through cost-estimators, drug plan formularies and network guides.

UPMC Health Plan's app lets members contact providers or pharmacies from a personalized list, view their personal health records, reach out with questions to customer service, check flex savings account balances and participate in an employer wellness program.

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As of late last year, the app has been downloaded about 28,000 times, Jacobs said. Between 5,000 and 10,000 members use it a few times a week, many of them individuals covered by high-deductible plans or participating in employer wellness programs.

This year, Jacob's team hopes to roll out a number of new features, including a provider and treatment comparison tool that gives personalized out-of-pocket cost estimates and a data integrator and wellness service, for those who opt in.

Rates and rewards

Mobile apps might also be prominent in 2015 for UnitedHealthcare, the nation's largest insurer.

UnitedHealthcare's updated Health4Me mobile app, version 4.1, is available to anyone who wants to identify local providers and review average prices for 755 services and 500 episodes of care -- "a comprehensive view of what consumers should expect throughout their course of treatment," the company said.

UnitedHealthcare members can get estimates based on contracted rates and any real-time account balances, and a mobile bill-payment service is available to more than 13 million employer-sponsored plan participants nationwide. By its own count, UnitedHealthcare is the only national insurer offering mobile payment options integrated with claims and benefits information.

UnitedHealthcare is also experimenting on the frontier of consumer rewards, in a partnership with Walgreens that's integrating the two companies' mobile apps. The health plan's fully insured members in Arizona and Illinois can earn Walgreens Balance Rewards points for completing health activities like walking.

Get more news on mobile health at mHealth News

It's a "first-of-its-kind program," said Vidya Raman-Tangella, head of UnitedHealthcare's Innovation Center of Excellence. The goal is to get members take simple steps, or "micro-habits," to improve their health and wellbeing--daily activity, regular walking, meals with lots of fruits and veggies, taking an 8-hour sleep--and then earn discounts on Walgreens products in stores or online.

Twitter: @AnthonyBrino