Minority-Led Health Care Company Fills the Gaps in Senior Health Care

older woman holding cell phone

SDI Productions / Getty Images

This article is part of our series looking at how Black Americans navigate the healthcare system. According to our exclusive survey, one in three Black Americans report having experienced racism while seeking medical care. In a roundtable conversation, our Medical Expert Board called for better representation among providers to help solve this widespread problem.

Medicare is a complex subject for even the savviest consumer, but for chronically underserved populations, it’s a veritable labyrinth. To help, Zing Health was founded in 2019 by two African American physicians, Eric E. Whitaker, MD, MPH, and Kenneth Alleyne, MD. Their mission? Providing collaborative, community-based managed Medicare Advantage plans to historically underserved populations.

What Is a Medicare Advantage Plan?

Medicare Advantage plans—referred to as Medicare Part C—are offered by private insurance companies. They combine the offerings of Medicare Part A and B plans—which are offered through the government—plus supplemental benefits. These supplemental benefits can include things like dental insurance, vision insurance, and prescription drug insurance.

We sat down with Whitaker and explored how Zing Health is changing the face of Medicare for its clients.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Verywell Health: What was the catalyst for creating Zing Health?

Dr. Whitaker: I’m a physician by training, and my line of work—be it clinical care research or program development—has really focused on vulnerable diverse populations. And I also am a serial entrepreneur. Zing is the third health insurance company that I’ve been part of starting since 2012. I began working on this in 2017 and the company started in 2019.

As I looked at the data for African Americans, there were many health disparities present. There was a study done in 2017 that showed that African American seniors on Medicare Advantage plans are 64% more likely than White people to be readmitted to hospitals within a month of surgery.

In the same study, data showed that among White people, Medicare Advantage reduced the likelihood of 30-day hospital readmissions by 12% compared to traditional Medicare. For African Americans, Medicare Advantage actually increased that rate by 11%. When you look at the cost of readmission, that’s roughly $14,400 per incident on average.

We decided that we would start this company, which is founded by two African American physicians, to focus on diverse populations, which frankly, a lot of larger health plans tend not to target. They’re perceived to be harder to work with and sicker. Given our background experiences as an executive team, we can make a big difference.

Verywell Health: Do you think that the diverse populations that you’re serving see Medicare Advantage plans as something out of reach?

Dr. Whitaker: What we’ve found is that they don’t understand it. Medicare is complicated stuff. Our internal salespeople close the sale 90% of the time when they explain all the benefits of Medicare Advantage. But it can take up to three hours to explain everything and really get folks to understand and to trust.

That’s the difference with Zing Health. From the beginning, we have an educational sales process that really helps allay the concerns and fears of potential enrollees. And once they have enrolled, we have a culturally competent call center that understands this population. Our health services department and care managers are closely tapped in and understand the population. Eight percent of our workforce is African American or Hispanic. We can talk to people and build trust in a way that is unlike other health insurance plans.

Verywell Health: What are the three biggest social determinants of health—environmental and social factors that influence a person’s health—that Medicare doesn’t account for?

Dr. Whitaker: In my experience, transportation is a big issue for patients to get to doctors’ appointments, subspecialty appointments, or the pharmacy. One of the things we do as part of our benefit design is to try to meet the needs of transportation for our members.

Another thing that became evident, especially during the pandemic, is food insecurity. Starting January 1, in our benefit design, we started including a food card. As a company, we contribute to food pantries, but we’ve found that it was a pretty consistent need across our population.

The third big thing that we found was also highlighted by the pandemic: social isolation. COVID led to many seniors being left at home and disconnected from family. So we started a program for our enrollees where they can get anywhere from 30–60 hours of time from a person who can come to their home and do something like play checkers or chess. They can help cook or drive that enrollee to the grocery store or pharmacy. It’s really like a “rent a relative” program to help assist members in their homes.

Some of our enrollees just call to talk to our staff on the phone. They just really want to be in touch with someone.

Verywell Health: How does Zing Health bring these initiatives to life?

Dr. Whitaker: There’s a care team responsible for every enrollee. One of the things we try to do right off the bat is to risk stratify the population so that we can understand who has more needs than others. Being able to connect them to the health system and have people go through the appropriate door instead of the emergency room is a key thing.

That care team helps us address social needs and find the resources and information they need.

Verywell Health: Where is Zing Health available and where are you expanding?

Dr. Whitaker: We are currently in 17 counties across three states: Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois. We’re looking at potentially expanding to a couple of other states in 2023, but we’re still doing background work to make sure that we are going to the places that have the demographics that we want to serve.

Verywell Health: How does Zing Health reach your target demographic?

Dr. Whitaker: We have a team of 10 internal sales agents and they are the feet in the street. They go to health fairs in the community, food pantries, they see members face to face.

It’s interesting; I mentioned trust is a big thing. We find that our internal agents have higher conversion rates than the brokers and third-party distributors. More importantly, they stick with us. There’s not a big turnover in membership, which is bad for the members and bad for the company. We want to have members that we can track over a long period of time because we think that’s when we can have the best interventions and get the health outcomes we need.

1 Source
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Li Y, Cen X, Cai X, Thirukumaran CP, Zhou J, Glance LG. Medicare advantage associated with more racial disparity than traditional medicare for hospital readmissions. Health Aff (Millwood). 2017;36(7):1328-1335. doi:10.1377/hlthaff.2016.1344

By Rachel Murphy
Rachel Murphy is a Kansas City, MO, journalist with more than 10 years of experience.