Quicken for health benefits?

August 27, 2009: 6:00 AM ET

Intuit, maker of finance software, turns its attention to health-care bills.

Quicken hopes to make health benefits intuitive. Image: Intuit

Quicken hopes to make health benefits intuitive. Image: Intuit

If you have health coverage, perhaps you've received that ominous-looking piece of mail from the insurance provider that declares: "This is not a bill," but looks a lot like one.

It's called an "explanation of benefits." But the correspondence doesn't seem to offer much of an explanation to anyone who lacks a medical degree or background as a company benefits manager.

Intuit (INTU), the company that simplified personal finance, hopes to help consumers untangle the complexity of health benefits and medical bills.  Earlier this year, Intuit introduced Quicken Health Expense Tracker, online software that translates medical jargon, shows the math behind the costs, and explains what to do next if there's a question or problem.

The confusion about how much care costs, who pays what, and why is a major theme of the current health care debate. What isn't in dispute is the fact that individuals increasingly are taking greater responsibility for decisions around their health care.

But they can't do so if they don't understand what they're buying.

A different approach to health IT

Intuit CEO Brad Smith has been vocal about going after health care and global markets, but the Quicken health software represents a totally different approach to health care IT than the one pursued  by Microsoft (MSFT), GE  (GE), IBM (IBM), and other tech giants.

These major players are getting in the game with solutions for doctors and hospitals that digitize health records, spurred by $20 billion in stimulus funds from the Obama administration.

Intuit's product is for consumers.

But Intuit, too, sees an opportunity to help insurance providers better communicate with their customers by offering the tool at no cost to plan participants. (When Intuit partners with insurers -- Cigna (CI) and UnitedHealth (UNH) already are part of the program -- they provide claims and benefits data that allows Intuit to populate a user's account automatically, rather than making patients enter data themselves.)

Cost savings for insurers

The software appeals to the insurers, because it can cut down on the number of customer-service calls and queries now directed at the various players in the health-care ecosystem: employers, network providers like doctors and hospitals, and the insurers themselves.

Intuit's research shows that 40% of calls to health plans are about understanding claims or benefits issues. But with the software explaining that "squamous blepharitis" means "swelling of the eyelid," that number should drop significantly.

"If we can eliminate those calls, we can save the insurance company money and the health care system money," explains Peter Karpas, general manager for Quicken Health Group. Patients are happier too, because they're spending less time on the phone (and if they're no longer making those calls from the office, this also makes their employers happy). "It's a better experience for everyone," says Karpas.

There are other benefits too. Insurers save on the cost of printing and mailing statements.

Employees better understand and appreciate the health benefits provided by their employers. Quicken Health Expense Tracker also shows the status of deductibles and out-of-pocket spending and helps forecast spending, so patients know how much money to put in their flexible spending accounts. And of course, given its ties to TurboTax, the program tracks expenses for tax time too.

While it's too early to predict if the health tracker will help transform health care, Intuit and its partners certainly will benefit from using the trusted Quicken brand name. "Obviously those EOBs [explanation of benefits] are impossible to understand," says First Analysis Corp. analyst James MacDonald. "If anyone can make them understandable, I would trust Intuit to do that."

MacDonald says it's "not clear they have their revenue model totally in place yet." It's unlikely that, as early customers, the health insurers are paying top dollar for the software. But he conceded, "I don't think it's a stretch that this could be tens of millions of dollars to Inuit and into the hundreds over the long term."

For the time being, Quicken Health Expense Tracker at least seems to offer some transparency in an industry that seems to grow more opaque every day at great cost to the individual. Says Karpas, "In the end when consumers understand, they can change their behavior in ways that impact their wallet."

Join the Conversation
Current Issue
  • Give the gift of Fortune
  • Get the Fortune app
  • Subscribe
Powered by WordPress.com VIP.