UHS partners with primary-care firm to serve plan enrollees

Universal Health Services has become the latest health system to partner with a primary-care specialty company to provide intensive primary-care services to its health plan enrollees.

The company announced Wednesday that it signed one of its first value-based payment deals with Seattle-based Vera Whole Health to operate two new primary-care centers in Reno and Carson City, Nevada, serving members of UHS’ 100,000-member Prominence Health Plan.

Prominence serves both Medicare Advantage and commercial members. Vera’s centers in Reno are already up and running.

Marvin Pember, president of UHS’ acute-care division, said his company intends to develop primary-care centers with Vera in other locations as well. The centers will offer a full-service model featuring preventive care, chronic-care management and health coaching in a convenient setting and cost-effective manner, UHS President Marc Miller said in a written statement.

“Adding Vera’s advanced primary-care model expands our reach via a unique model of on-site care centers that provide members with the kind of primary care that addresses their whole health including physical, social and psychological, and not simply the treatment of symptoms,” he said.

UHS said companies that have partnered with Vera to operate advanced primary-care centers have seen up to a 25% reduction in total healthcare costs in the first year, due partly to better management of chronic health issues and more appropriate use of the emergency department and specialty care.

UHS will receive a minority equity stake as part of the transaction with Vera, which grew with the help of Virginia Mason Health System’s collaboration and investment about six years ago.

Private equity-backed Vera is one of a growing number of companies using intensive, team-based primary care to improve patient outcomes and the overall patient experience while reducing healthcare costs.

Other players in this “high-touch” primary-care space—many of which are backed by venture capital or private equity investors—include ChenMed, CareMore Health System, Iora Health, Oak Street Health and One Medical. In addition, UnitedHealth Group’s Optum, Humana and other insurers have invested heavily in coordinated primary-care groups.

A number of hospital systems have moved to establish intensive, team-based primary-care clinics either by contracting with these primary-care specialists or by launching their own efforts. They include OhioHealth, Bellin Health, Advocate Aurora, Stanford Medicine, Johns Hopkins Medicine, UnityPoint Health, Intermountain Healthcare and Mount Sinai Health System.

Systems are particularly interested in offering intensive primary care under capitated arrangements with Medicare Advantage plans, in order to capture savings from closely managing seniors’ chronic conditions and reducing care costs.

But experts say this primary-care transformation by health systems has been slow and spotty, limited by the sluggish shift from fee for service to capitation and other value-based payment models.

Vera, which started in 2008 as a Seattle fitness studio for women, later evolved into a provider of on-site health clinics for employers. It adopted Virginia Mason’s evidence-based criteria for diagnoses and specialty referrals. The company’s website says it now provides population health management to employers through on-site primary care, featuring “empathetic listening” to facilitate healthy behavioral changes.

Dr. Bob Kocher, a partner at venture capital firm Venrock, said Vera is supplying new primary-care physician capacity in markets where health systems have gobbled up all the primary-care doctors, and allowing doctors to find “soft landings” when they want to leave systems.

Pember said while UHS is taking a minority position in Vera now, “the partnership can grow and develop. We’ll see what the future holds.”