I don’t know anyone who looks forward to navigating through a dark forest clogged with phone trees and ’til-hell-freezes-over hold times in order to talk to her health insurance provider. I’m fully fluent in their language, and I often still hang up with my head spinning, questions only partially answered.
So I can’t imagine it’s a cakewalk for business owners struggling to understand healthcare coverage for their employees—not to mention pay for it: It’s a company’s second largest expense after payroll.
Sherpaa co-founder Cheryl Swirnow, 32, and her partner, Dr. Jay Parkinson, MD (called “The Doctor of the Future” by Fast Company), vowed to make this easier. “We see other start-ups that have a great idea for their business that they are really passionate about and seeing them wringing their hands and be frustrated [with health insurance issues] is frustrating for us,” she says. “We know we can make it better and easier.”
Stop in for a second to see how Swirnow is adding a little sparkle (and ease) to healthcare coverage for start-ups like Tumblr and their employees.
Can you give us an “easy” explanation of what Sherpaa does?
Essentially, what we do is go into companies and take a look at their healthcare spend—very often we are finding that they are not spending “properly.” Either they are choosing a plan that is super expensive but doesn’t actually cover the needs of their employees (things like mental health or prescriptions), or they are going the opposite way and getting “Cadillac” plans that cost way too much money and cover things their demographic is never going to use. We take a look at the actual demographics, understand the needs of their population, and prescribe the perfect plan.
We couple this service with 24-7 email and phone access for employees to a group of MDs [or guides]. Employees can hit us up for anything—like, “I just moved to NY and I need a great allergist” to “I sliced my finger open” or “Does Aetna cover my MRI?” It’s the gamut from the super serious to the relatively benign.
How does this reduce healthcare expenditures for employers?
70% of the time we are solving the problem: The employees are only talking to MDs—not a nurse or administrator. The MD can prescribe and solve the actual problem over the phone. If he or she can’t, we’ve hand-selected a group of about 100 medical specialists in New York that we love, and we make the appointment for you.
From the employer’s perspective, since we are solving people’s problems right away, that reduces claims for the company to the insurance provider by 70% as well. That makes the population look healthier and less risky, so year after year, the company’s premium increases will be lower and lower. In New York, annual premium increases are about 12-15% on average, and I’ve seen as high as 35%. Our increases are between 4 and 6%.
And how does it make happier, healthier employees?
When people typically think of healthcare, they are not reminded of wonderful experiences. Instead, they think of things like overcrowded ERs or waiting over an hour to see their doctor even though they had an appointment. With Sherpaa, we want our clients to rave about their experiences—we want them to feel as though they have formed real relationships with their healthcare providers.
Can you give me an example of a Sherpaa win?
An employee emailed with tummy pain. To Jay, it sounded like appendicitis. Jay called up Dr. Goldstein, one of our favorite surgeons. The gentleman went into Dr. Goldstein’s office and it turns out, it was. Dr. Goldstein called over to the outpatient surgical center, which was three blocks from his office and set him up with a room. The patient’s appendix was removed and he was sent home on oral antibiotics.
From the minute that the gentleman emailed Jay, to the time he was back home, minus the surgery, was six hours. The patient never set foot in an ER, he didn’t have to do all the craziness—the whole experience was completely curated by us.
The surgeon won because he kept 2/3 the cost of the procedure, and the insurance company won because we saved it $63,000. And, the employee had a fantastic experience. That’s where accessibility and affordability all come together.
You mentioned that your dad is a pediatrician—did growing up with an MD in your home influence you to become a healthcare entrepreneur?
I am obviously a little bit biased, but I think my dad is the sort of doctor we are looking to work with in Sherpaa—the exact type we have in mind when we think of what makes our service so wonderful. He takes time with his patients, is forward-thinking and mission-driven, and tries to come up with innovative ways to make the system better beyond just his practice. Watching how he conducts himself has absolutely informed my beliefs, and it’s made me want to be a part of the solution.
What are your plans for Sherpaa’s future?
Tumblr was our first client and we have learned a lot from them. For example, 90% of their employees have used Sherpaa at least once since signing on. That is a statistic that far exceeded our expectations. We are thrilled.
We’ve been in business for about 10 months—and we just started signing new clients about three months ago. Now, we have 12 companies and 500 covered lives.
Our plan is really to nail the Sherpaa experience for the lovely people of New York, and then move on to other major cities. In the pipeline are San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, and Austin. We’ve had a ton of requests from people all over the country for Sherpaa to be brought to them.
Why should start-ups (and patients) trust Sherpaa?
We don’t take money from insurance companies—we want to be the voice that [business owners] can trust. We say, “If XYZ insurance company isn’t living up to what they promised, we won’t use them anymore.”
It’s the same with our doctors—we have no financial relationship with them—we just think they are great and have very high standards of what your healthcare experience should be. From the minute you walk into that office, to the second you leave and get your bill, if a doctor is not living up those standards, we simply stop referring people to him or her.
We vowed that we want transparency—we really feel that transparency is what builds trust. It’s almost like healthcare (whether it’s insurance or anything else) is built to be purposely confusing. And there is no need for that.
Come back in two weeks for part three of our female healthcare founder series, where I introduce you to Jill Shah, founder of Jill’s List—a web-based resource to find local complementary, alternative, and integrative health providers in your area.