UnitedHealth to Launch Cloud-Based Data Platform

UnitedHealth Group Inc. plans to launch a new cloud-computing platform aimed at health-care providers and insurers, one of a growing number of efforts to allow more sharing of medical data among industry players.

The offering from UnitedHealth’s Optum health-services unit is part of the broad trend of moving data storage and functions into an online environment so they can be retrieved from multiple devices and locations. Many health-care companies selling products such as electronic medical records already offer them in a cloud-based style.

But Optum plans to take another page from technology firms’ books by opening up its cloud environment to outside developers, which will be able to offer “apps” in much the same way they can through Apple Inc.’s well-known app store.

Among the initial apps will be one developed with the help of the Cleveland Clinic that helps health providers structure payments for “bundles” of care, meaning for all services tied to a particular procedure or condition, Optum said. Another, from a company called HealthLoop Inc., helps doctors oversee patients’ follow-up care.

The services, including offerings from Optum itself, will initially be aimed at hospitals, doctors and health plans. The company may eventually add offerings for consumers and other parties like government health-care payers and pharmaceutical makers, a spokesman said. Optum plans to charge for data storage—which could be used for things like hospital systems’ digital patient records—as well as collect fees from developers for including their apps, which will have to be certified before they are listed.

“We’re going to make collaboration possible in ways it is certainly not possible today,” said Andy Slavitt, Optum group executive vice president. Optum said it plans to open up a beta version of its service in June and hopes to roll it out more broadly late this year.

In another move, a group of insurers and a health-technology company said they will buy a digital network that is currently used mostly to send administrative and financial communications between providers and health plans. The companies—Highmark Inc., Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, Independence Blue Cross and Lumeris Corp.—plan to use NaviNet Inc.’s network to help doctors and hospitals integrate different health data. One goal will be to allow health insurers to more closely tie doctors’ and hospitals’ reimbursement to quality and cost measures.

The partners, which didn’t disclose a purchase price, will launch the new service in their Mid-Atlantic home region, but they plan to expand it nationwide. It will be open to competing insurers as well, the companies said.

“We are committed to partnering with other organizations,” said Daniel J. Hilferty, chief executive of Independence Blue Cross. The three Blue plans already own stakes in closely held NaviNet, he said.

Both Optum’s effort and the NaviNet initiative are aimed at the same problem: a balkanized health-data system that makes it difficult to track and coordinate patients’ care. For instance, doctors may not know if their patients are admitted to the hospital, and hospitals can’t quickly access emergency-room patients’ full digital health histories. That also makes it tough to hold providers financially accountable for patients’ results.

Creating a shared-data environment for health care carries some unique challenges. Federal law requires strict privacy protections. In addition, health-data sharing often requires rivals, or players that are traditionally on opposite ends of the negotiating table such as insurers and hospitals, to cooperate.

Optum’s Mr. Slavitt and Lumeris Chief Executive Mike Long said that data in each of their projects will be strictly protected, and owners will need to grant permission for anyone to access even anonymized and conglomerated information. Competing entities won’t be able to see one another’s data, they said.

The new Optum service will draw initial users by migrating the company’s existing tools for functions like claims processing into the new cloud environment, Mr. Slavitt said. In addition, Optum itself will launch several new services designed to help integrate and track care.

The new cloud environment could “allow you to connect across different entities and players,” said David Brailer, chairman of Health Evolution Partners, a private-equity firm, who oversaw health-information policy for the George W. Bush administration. Today’s electronic medical records don’t always integrate data from other sources easily or mesh information with versions provided by rival companies, he said.

Originally published in the February 14, 2012 edition of The Wall Street Journal.

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