When Eli Hall was in his thirties, he had a kidney stone that needed surgery. Despite having medical insurance, his out-of-pocket costs for the procedure came to $4,000.
Hall, an Arizona-based small business owner soon discovered that such costs were proving to be the norm. As a result, he stopped buying insurance altogether. Now he pays in to a subscription-based model of healthcare where $300 per month will get him, his wife, and two children unlimited access (either over the phone or through in-office visits) to doctors in the Redirect Health network. This subscription also meets the Affordable Care Act insurance mandate.
Hall’s move away from the traditional insurance care model might have been deliberate, but not everyone is as lucky. In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 30.1 million people under the age of 65 were uninsured in the United States. Now, a new startup called TalktoMira is helping those without insurance access doctors for routine visits — affordably.
The service, accessed through the website (or phone or text), evaluates a user’s symptoms and returns recommendations for specific doctors that factor in wait times, traffic conditions, and pricing. Khang T. Vuong, the founder and CEO, expects that doctors will be willing to provide discounts through this model, as they’re eliminating the administrative costs associated with the insurance middleman. Some discounts can be as high as 50 percent, according to the website.
Mira promises that most routine visits will cost around $99 or slightly above. “This provides people who can’t afford paying $3,000 to $4,000 per year in insurance premiums an alternative to access basic healthcare,” Vuong says.
As of press time, Mira is available in the Washington D.C., Northern Virginia, and Dallas, and will soon expand across the country via a partnership with a national network of healthcare providers.
“For those who live in places where we don’t have a presence, users can still search for the nearest and least busy urgent cares. The goal is to build a national database of walk-in clinics with straightforward upfront pricing so the 30 million uninsured and 56 million underinsured have access to same or next day primary care at an upfront affordable cost,” Vuong says.
Getting Around Traditional Insurance
Mira caters to the uninsured by helping them navigate the healthcare system the moment they need it. “Currently cash patients have to rely mainly on Google for searching for options,” Vuong says, adding that patients do also occasionally work with the app ZocDoc for booking. “However [ZocDoc] info has no pricing information; we fill in that much-needed gap,” Vuong says. In focus groups TalktoMira conducted, a majority (70 percent) reported cost of service as their main barrier to healthcare.
As Hall’s subscription-based model proves, cash-driven access like TalktoMira is not the only option for the uninsured. Direct primary care like the kind that Redirect Health delivers is another way to get around high premiums. It does so by effectively eliminating the administrative costs associated with the middleman, says David Slepak, the CEO of Redirect. Doctors who are tired of packed schedules and the administrative headaches involved with the insurance model are only too happy to be a part of subscription or cash-based models, explains Vuong.
James Corbett, Principal at Initium Health, points out the uninsured can also access federally qualified health centers across the country or a free clinic, but these might have problems of long wait times.
“Not a Cure-All”
TalktoMira might not provide the same level of consistency that seeing a primary care doctor does, though Vuong says there are ways to see the same doctor again by choosing them through the system. He adds that TalkToMira also empowers patients by asking them about their satisfaction after the visit and to see if any further checkups might be warranted, thus enabling patients to rate their doctors just like they would any other service provider.
“I might not have one primary care doctor, but I have the entire system behind me,” says Hall.
But TalktoMira and direct primary care models don’t resolve the challenges of insurance related to catastrophic events. The subscription model won’t kick in if the patient has a heart attack and needs to be hospitalized, for example. So patients are also encouraged to purchase a high-deductible, low-premium plan for such contingencies.
Vuong recognizes TalktoMira doesn’t solve all the problems related to insurance, but it can at least start by helping to facilitate access to routine visits. Even the insured don’t always seek out a doctor because of copays and high deductibles, Slepak says. “We’re spending so much on insurance for the car that we can’t afford the gas to drive the car,” he says.
TalktoMira is hoping that by making routine care accessible, it might both lessen the crunch in emergency rooms where many people don’t really belong, and also nip problems in the bud.
“It’s not a cure-all, not a panacea,” admits Vuong. “It won’t get you a knee replacement. But at least I can get you in the system so you might not have to get to that point.”