With enrollment up and more plans launching each year, Medicare Advantage (MA) organizations have had to figure out how to differentiate themselves in an increasingly competitive field.
For many, MA differentiation has meant embracing in-home care and actually acquiring, or investing in, provider partners. The latest example of this trend took place Tuesday, with Minneapolis, Minnesota-based Lifespark announcing a new strategic investment from UCare.
“We viewed Lifespark — and their holistic model and supporting technology platform — as a vital next step to drive care to better meet the needs of seniors,” Mark Traynor, president and CEO of UCare, told Home Health Care News. “Lifespark is truly an innovator, and UCare believes we are on the leading edge of serving our seniors in ways that provide not only coverage for medical care but additional supports like nutrition, transportation and home services.”
UCare is an independent, nonprofit health plan providing health care and administrative services to more than 570,000 members throughout Minnesota and parts of Western Wisconsin. It’s currently the largest MA provider in Minnesota, though many of the larger national plans are starting to “make plays” in the state as well, Traynor noted.
Lifespark, formerly branded as “Lifesprk,” is an innovative senior care provider with both in-home care and senior living operations. Lifespark CEO Joel Theisen founded the company in 2004 with the goal of redefining the aging experience for seniors by focusing more on whole-person and longitudinal care.
The strategic investment from UCare builds upon that mission in a variety of ways, Theisen told Home Health Care News.
“In 30 years for me, it’s the biggest deal that I’ve ever wanted to do and that I’ve ever done,” Theisen said. “This is not in the spirit of the dollars or whatever, but in the spirit of the opportunity to really do [senior care] right.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, the details of UCare’s investment had not been disclosed.
On Wednesday, however, Lifespark revealed the investment is part of a broader $20 million Series B round, co-led by UCare and a Virgo-managed fund.
“Not only is UCare coming in, but we also have our initial investor that’s coming in [as part of] the round,” Theisen said. “It’s a round that includes some debt financing as well. There’s a significant amount of cash coming into the company.”
Following the investment, UCare will have a seat on the Lifespark board. The health plan hasn’t directly invested in a provider before, which makes Tuesday’s news that much more meaningful, Traynor explained.
“It’s significant,” he said. “For us, it’s the first occasion for UCare to make a direct investment in a provider partner.”
Lifespark closed a $16.1 million investment round, led by Burlingame, California-based private equity firm Virgo Investment Group, in April 2020. Prior to that, Theisen, a nurse by training, had bootstrapped the company starting with $500,000 in funding from friends and family.
A value-based care history
Lifespark and UCare aren’t exactly strangers to each other.
In fact, UCare was actually an early adopter of the Lifespark model. Additionally, the two have worked with North Memorial Health and Ridgeview Medical Center over the past few years to develop value-based arrangements aimed at lowering total cost of care.
Through the collaboration, Lifespark has assumed risk for nearly 7,000 seniors. Utilization data shows that UCare members who work with one of Lifespark’s “life managers” are 24% less likely to visit the ER and 43% less likely to have an in-patient admission.
“We strongly believe that by deepening our collaboration, we’re going to improve the health of Minnesotans and maybe seniors throughout other parts of the country down the road,” Traynor said.
When considering UCare’s investment, it’s important to note that the health plan is buying into all of Lifespark, including its proprietary electronic medical record (EMR) system and technology platform designed to capture the complete picture of a person’s health and wellness.
Unlike some traditional EMRs, Lifespark’s “electronic life record” includes non-medical information and more. Specifically, it tracks social determinants of health like loneliness, as well as information on seniors’ life goals, hobbies and interests.
Building something like the electronic life record had been a longtime dream of Theisen, he told HHCN during a 2020 Changemakers interview.
“It’s like a deeper EMR that, along with all the cost information, includes data on purpose, passion and identity,” he said at the time. “It includes a person’s plan, their goals, their wishes, and it tracks it and mines that wisdom to deliver much better value over time. Technology and tech enablement are a big part of our future.”
Yet UCare is likewise betting on Lifespark’s care delivery capabilities.
“Our sweet spot as a health plan is really serving the folks that Lifespark’s model is designed to help,” Traynor said.
Before this year, those capabilities basically included everything that can be provided in “the home,” such as home health, hospice and personal care services. Lifespark is also a provider of hospice and primary care services.
But then in May, Lifespark acquired the operations of Tealwood Senior Living, which, at the time, had a portfolio of 35 senior living communities located across Minnesota and Wisconsin, in addition to a handful of skilled nursing facilities (SNFs).
Tealwood properties are now under “Lifespark Senior Living.” Dr. Bill Thomas, the founder of The Green House Project and Lifespark’s chief independence officer, leads the senior living expansion.
“The technology platform and the analytics engine have been impressive to us at UCare, and we see current value and great potential in the integration of data to provide a full picture of the seniors who we serve,” Traynor said. “The other aspect of our partnership with Lifespark that we really appreciate is their longitudinal commitment to serving seniors as they age and evolve, like we all do, and have different needs at different times in different settings.”
Creating a payer-provider blueprint
With an infusion of capital, Lifespark plans to continue building out its technology platform, particularly when it comes to delivering better insights to a senior’s family. It will also strengthen its “geriatric expertise” by investing in and around nurse practitioners (NPs), medical managers and similar positions, Theisen said.
On top of those plans, Lifespark will work to build out its acute care at home capabilities.
And while UCare is eager to begin working with Lifespark’s data and analytics tools, Theisen is equally excited about the information collected by the health plan.
“Obviously, we’re working with a payer now, so we can do some amazing things,” he told HHCN.
Tuesday’s news is a “really big step” for both Lifespark and UCare, but Theisen said he hopes the close-knight relationship will serve as a blueprint for other payer-provider partnerships down the road.
“This is not just a Lifespark-UCare thing,” he said. “We want to really work and build the channel, or the conduit, to … bring a lot of other housing providers, a lot of other long-term care, and home- and community based providers into the opportunity to work with us, with UCare in a value based world.”
As a bonus for UCare, it further differentiates itself in the MA field.
“Every aspect of Medicare Advantage is becoming more competitive,” Traynor said.