Nathan Johnson is the VP of strategic development at Premera Blue Cross, the health insurer based in Mountlake Terrace. He thinks that what Amazon has done to shopping and what Uber has done for transportation is coming soon to health insurance. People, especially millennials, will start demanding more transparency about costs and benefits of health insurance and access of use online and in mobile. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Nathan Johnson is the VP of strategic development at Premera Blue Cross, the health insurer based in Mountlake Terrace. He thinks that what Amazon has done to shopping and what Uber has done for transportation is coming soon to health insurance. People, especially millennials, will start demanding more transparency about costs and benefits of health insurance and access of use online and in mobile. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Über easy: Premera exec thinks insurance industry needs to change

Premera strategist was inspired by a ride and how he wants to ‘remove the friction’ from your insurance.

MOUNTLAKE TERRACE — Nathan Johnson doesn’t remember all the details of his first Über ride. He thinks he was on a work trip, probably headed for dinner from a hotel.

He does remember being floored by the experience.

He put in the destination, a car arrived three minutes later and he was dropped off without having to fiddle with a credit car machine or exchange cash. The driver was courteous and Johnson felt welcomed on the ride.

“It wasn’t just, ‘That was good, I’ll do that next time,’” Johnson said. “It was, ‘You’re not using Über, why not?” I became — whether by accident or not — a promoter.”

The vice president of strategic development at insurer Premera Blue Cross thinks that’s the magic of Über, Amazon, Zillow and other new economy businesses. It’s not just what’s being offered; it’s the ease of how it’s offered.

“They have removed friction from the experience,” Johnson said. “Let’s take Amazon, for instance. They have removed the friction of getting into your car and going to five big box stores to make even a major appliance purchase. You have all of the cost information and all of the quality information at your finger tips and, oftentimes, free shipping to boot.”

Johnson, who joined Premera last year, is making the pitch that the health care industry is on the cusp of being disrupted. He wrote a blog post making the argument at the Mountlake Terrace company titled “A Generational Moment for Healthcare.”

“You have a health care system that has grown up over time that is very slow moving, it’s very driven by inertia and it’s not always truly focused on that customer,” Johnson said. “Therein lies the opportunity for Premera.”

Johnson, who previously worked for the state’s Health Care Authority in Olympia, argues that Premera and other health care companies soon will be forced to adapt to technological change or risk being replaced.

Part of the push is the sheer numbers of millennials entering the workforce, Johnson said. Millennials, and Johnson counts as one at the age of 33, demand immediacy, more empathy and more transparency. And it’s not just millennial insurance consumers. It’s also millennials who are moving up the ranks of human resource departments or entering the C-suites at companies.

“One thing for me, coming newly into an organization with a fresh set of eyes, is appreciating how that millennial customer segment is changing and what they desire in an experience and not just health care, but any experience where there is an exchange of value,” he said.

Johnson thinks that millennials want more choices and not just choices for choice’s sake, but choices with data points behind.

“Amazon is a great example,” he said. “I can go and compare a single product that I’m looking at with 10, 12, maybe 100 different options. They have quality ratings attached. I know what they’re going to cost me and how much it’s going to cost to get it shipped to me and I have a pretty good feel in what I’m going to get in that value exchange based on other’s experiences.”

Premera has 2 million users across the United States. And Premera provides insurance for technology giants Microsoft and Amazon. Both of those companies employ a large numbers of millennials. And the Puget Sound area — where many Premera customers live — in general has a young population receptive to technology.

Premera already is making changes to address this dynamic. For instance, the company, which employs 3,250 including 2,600 in Mountlake Terrace, started what’s called Premera Listens two years ago. It’s a survey sent to customers after they interact with Premera. Thousands have voiced their opinions on their experience.

Premera is also focusing part of its recruiting strategy on drawing on the millennial talent base in the Puget Sound area.

“We’re also trying to recruit the best and brightest of all age categories of course, but there are a lot more millennials showing up in our workforce, naturally, as they age into it,” Johnson said. “We’re trying to be attentive about how we become an employer that the best talent wants to work for.”

Another example is what’s called Premera Pulse, a plan rolled out in Alaska to help get more customers to use their existing preventative health care benefits.

“Alaska was a little bit behind in terms of using their preventative benefits so we were thinking how can we get them to do their screenings?” Premera spokeswoman Melanie Coon said.

So Premera asked customers to sign up for text alerts to receive information “in the palm of their hands.” Customers who opt in get notifications for such things as when it’s time for colonoscopies, breast cancer screenings or well-child visits. Premera Pulse also provides list of medications to be accessed during doctors visits. And an easy way to find doctors located near them.

The program has about 3,500 people signed up. It could grow and expand into other areas. A better informed customer should be a healthier customer over the long run. And a healthier customer is a less costly one.

“Whether we kept that customer for 10 or 20 years for the dollar return is an open question, but we’re committed to their current health and well being and, by doing so, if we can get people engaged in their own health, that’s a win for us,” Johnson said.

These innovations and more will be needed as Premera looks to serve the next generation of health care consumers, Johnson said. He hopes the company will deliver a simple and easy experience for Premera cardholders at a quality and cost that will make for an “unexpectedly wonderful experience.”

“We’re trying to connect customers to the thing they need when they need it, which is health care services…,” Johnson said. “It’s our job to make that as frictionless as possible. If we do that well, we keep customers for a long time and we deliver real value to those customers so they’ll tell others about their experience without our prompting.”

Jim Davis: 425-339-3097; jdavis@heraldnet.com; @HBJnews.

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