UnitedHealth Group is trying to grow in the crowded digital health market by rolling out new features for employers while expanding its downtown Minneapolis workforce to about 140 workers.

For several years, employer health plans have hired its Rally Health division to provide a digital platform where workers can track their progress toward incentives in company-sponsored wellness programs. Now, UnitedHealth says employers can more easily access tools for finding doctors, comparing procedure costs, learning about insurance benefits and, in a few cases, scheduling appointments. 

Based in Washington, D.C., Rally Health moved its Twin Cities operations in December into the Millwright Building, which is located near U.S. Bank Stadium, after outgrowing its previous office in the city’s North Loop neighborhood.

“We built out a suite of capabilities all around this idea that engaging with the health care system should be no different than engaging with any other industry from an online perspective,” said Karl Ulfers, who is Rally’s chief product officer and is based in Minneapolis.

The message sounds like something Minnetonka-based UnitedHealth Group would be particularly interested in sending these days, as technology giants including Seattle-based Amazon set their sights on disrupting the medical business.

David Wichmann, UnitedHealth’s chief executive, touted progress at Rally Health last week during an earnings call that grabbed headlines for other reasons — namely, the CEO’s comments against single-payer health care that could upend United’s giant health insurance division, UnitedHealthcare.

Many carriers are making plays for the digital health market, which encompasses a wide variety of tools accessed on computers and mobile devices that patients can use for everything from healthy living to making efficient use of the health care system.

Last year, Eagan-based Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota announced a partnership with Atlanta-based Sharecare, which offers a digital health platform where subscribers can take a health risk assessment and get personalized recommendations on health activities. Bloomington-based HealthPartners says it’s developed its own system over the years, including a price transparency tool that dates back to 2004.

“They’re all doing the same thing,” said Rey Balcazar, a benefits consultant with Mercer in Minneapolis. “The ultimate goal is: How to continue to engage with their membership, bring the membership back to their portal … for the improvement of overall health.”

Hundreds of companies, from startups to large players, are working on elements of digital health platforms, said Joe Van De Graaff, vice president for digital health at KLAS, a Utah-based health care research group.

In May 2018, Minneapolis-based RedBrick Health merged with Virgin Pulse, part of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, to create a digital health platform where users can navigate health plan benefits, receive health coaching and tap a variety of related benefits. Minnetonka-based Medica is one customer, offering the service as part of a broader portfolio.

What analysts are waiting to see, Van De Graaff said, is that enough people are using the systems to broadly impact health behavior and costs — not simply that they have access.

“The starting line is not putting technology together. The starting line is really adoption,” he said. “Once we start to get adoption, then we can really start to look to even see if there are any health outcomes that are measurable.”

UnitedHealth Group acquired a stake in the business that’s become Rally Health in 2014, and has developed it through its Optum division for health care services.

Rally’s digital health platform is incorporated in coverage for people with health insurance from UnitedHealthcare. But because Rally is part of Optum, its services also can be purchased by other health insurers for use by their subscribers.

From the start, Rally Health has worked to preserve its outsider status within UnitedHealth Group, Ulfers said, with most employees lacking a health care background. That’s why Rally Health announced its new digital health platform for employers in March at the annual South by Southwest conference in Texas, which is known more for alternative music than health insurance.

UnitedHealth Group employs about 18,000 people in Minnesota, but Rally Health was careful not to locate at the company’s primary corporate campuses in Minnetonka and Eden Prairie.

“We’re in a different location. A different vibe. A different approach,” Ulfers said. “We maintained the culture by maintaining a degree of separation.”

At the same time, Rally Health has opted to closely partner with the big health insurers and health care systems that dominate the industry, Ulfers said, whereas some competitors market services directly to employers.

Rally started as a wellness platform where people could take health surveys, connect with a coach or fitness program and participate in group health challenges. About four years ago, Rally expanded the platform to include tools to help people shop and make decisions about care by displaying information on prices, quality and consumer ratings.

Its latest digital health platform makes it easier for employers to pull everything together in one place, including information about all health plan options. That’s important, Ulfers said, because some large employers will have multiple plans and, in some cases, multiple insurance carriers.

During a recent demonstration, Ulfers showed how health plan members in Houston could use the system to compare knee-surgery costs by doctor in the region. Whereas the average in the area was $6,000 to $12,000 for the service, Ulfers found one doctor with costs of about $16,500 for the service. The system then displays the patient’s likely out-of-pocket costs, given the rules of the patient’s particular health plan.

To display cost information, Rally Health must get access to some of the most sensitive information in health care — the negotiated payment rates between health insurers and health care providers. That means health insurers and health care providers must trust that Rally will not turn around and share the information with UnitedHealthcare.

“Because we have this sensitive data, we have very specific things that we do to make sure that we’ve got lots of process and controls around it,” Ulfers said. One example: Rally stores data in a cloud run by Amazon, rather than the Optum cloud used by the rest of UnitedHealth Group. “There is a firewall — both, as you can see, in the real estate, but also, more importantly, on the technology side.”