Here’s Why Independence and Comcast Are Launching a Health Care Venture Together

On Thursday, the two companies announced a plan to build a patient-centered tech platform that they'll pilot this year. The leaders behind the deal explain why and what it will mean for the industry and the region.

Comcast Tower (L) and Independence Health Group Tower (R).

As health care spending continues to represent an excessively large part of our country’s economy, the push for innovation in the space dominated by an inefficient status quo is getting more intense.

This year we’ve seen Amazon launch a standalone health care company with corporate behemoths J.P. Morgan Chase and Berkshire Hathaway, and a merger between CVS and Aetna is in the works. Now Independence Health Group has announced a partnership with Comcast to create a health care technology company that seeks to improve health care delivery between providers and patients.

The joint venture will establish a tech and communications platform where patients can access health care tools and services more readily, whether it be through their cable set-top box or mobile phone.

I spoke with Independence president and CEO Daniel J. Hilferty and Brian Lobley, president of commercial and consumer markets at Independence Blue Cross, to find out more about how this deal fits in with the various health care mergers and alliances emerging between some of the country’s top corporate leaders. Here are some excerpts from that conversation:

BizPhilly: How did this deal, between seemingly strange bedfellows, come together?
Hilferty: The development of this new business between Independence Health Group and Comcast has been in the making for well over three years. It really started with a conversation that we had with our partners at Comcast. Comcast is our largest customer, and we see them continually coming up with innovative solutions for their employees and families just as we’re doing in the health care space.

Consistent with our strategy, which we call IHG2020, we’ve been looking to diversify our business that we offer as Independence Health Group and Independence Blue Cross. Through those conversations we came up with an idea to collaborate, to form this new business and to use the distribution channels that Comcast has through its Xfinity [X1] box, remote control, phone and web access. We can use their capabilities to educate our customers and their consumers by connecting them to the health care system in a more comfortable, trusting way. And we’d educate them not only about navigating the system, but also about some health issue they may be dealing with at any given time.

BizPhilly: Is there a specific pain point for customers that you’re looking to alleviate through the collaboration?
Lobley: We’re really looking at the questions we want to answer from a health care standpoint. And we thought that the prevailing question for consumers in their health care journey is, “What do I do next?” And if you think about that, if you’ve ever had to navigate the system yourself, you know it’s an emotional time. There’s a lot of stress that’s weighing on you. And all you want to do is have a consultation at your fingertips. And that’s what we think we’re able to do with this new platform. We want to really digitize that health care experience and overall journey, and make it personal for you as a patient. And then most importantly, we want to make it seamless and frictionless to give you the resources you need. This can be on your TV, on your mobile phone or you can get a text or message in real time. You can even access video and get that simple information about what you have to do next in your journey.

BizPhilly: Who do you envision will use this platform?
Hilferty: We anticipate this company being a national company. And we assume we will develop a customer base through other Blue Cross Blue Shield plans and the wide customer base that Comcast has throughout the country. We most definitely won’t only serve our own associates and employees at Independence Health Group, but our close to 8.6 million lives in five-county Philadelphia and 24 other states and the District of Columbia. And it will be available to all Comcast customers.

Lobley: The idea here is we’re not going to be restrained. Anybody that has a mobile phone in their pocket should be a customer, anybody that has a TV.

BizPhilly: In the past year alone, we’ve seen the announcement of a number of mega-mergers, with some of them coming to fruition, and we’ve also seen nontraditional players like Amazon throw their hats into the health care disruption ring. How does your collaboration with Comcast fit in with all of this?
Hilferty: Yes, let’s just take two examples of the mega-mergers or collaborations. One would be the Aetna-CVS deal. We firmly believe that that partnership, if approved, will really limit those two organizations in terms of serving each other’s mutual customers. But we look at the deal between Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JP Morgan, and we say, “Wow.” We’re intrigued by Amazon because of the understanding that they have of the consumer and the ability to speak to the consumer in ways that is data-driven and focused on their needs, and then delivering a product.

If you think of it from those two perspectives, our deal with Comcast won’t be limiting in the way we view the CVS-Aetna deal because we have an 80-year history of delivering innovative health care solutions, and Comcast has this incredible digital distribution channel, with platforms like Xfinity and the web. What a combination where we bring both of our skills sets together to deliver a new array of products, services and other things to our membership and their customers.

BizPhilly: I can understand Independence’s desire to create this platform from a health care perspective but what about Comcast? Can you speak to Comcast’s interest in building out this platform?
Lobley: Comcast’s assets are in the home. And they have a captive audience. I think they can use their technology now to serve more of a holistic person’s life. They’re customer’s have an entertainment deal, now they can help their customers on their health care journey. It only reinforces their commitment to keep their customers engaged by offering a wide variety of products and services that can actually improve their daily lives. It’s consistent with what they’ve done with Xfinity Home and Xfinity Mobile. It was a natural fit for us. We look to who can help us make our customers’ lives better, healthier and more seamless.

BizPhilly: And the fact that two of Philly’s largest players are coming together on this is certainly notable. What does the partnership mean for the city’s near and distant future?
Hilferty: It’s premature for us to say it’s going to be this size of a company, and that we’re going to employee this number of people. What I will say is that you’re right. You have two iconic Philadelphia companies taking the lead as health care changes to better serve the population and frankly to have significant influence on how the delivery of health care services can and will be improved.

If you put that next to all the incredible things that are happening in Philadelphia — young people moving in, construction projects everywhere you turn, health care innovation initiatives underway through the Great Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce and other entities. There’s so much positive going on. When you have two of the major companies coming together on a very important project like this new business, it really speaks to the fact that our city and our region is on the move. We are taking full advantage of that.

BizPhilly: When does Independence expect to roll out the initiative?
Lobley: End of Q3 and beginning of Q4 is when we’ll begin rolling out a pilot right here in Philadelphia. And then throughout 2019 is when we’re going to expand the distribution nationally. We’ll be looking for markets that are exciting to partner with so we can really make an impact on the health care experience and health care costs.