30 Million People Are Uninsured. New Startup Wants to Connect Them Directly to Doctors.

A child visits the doctor for a checkup.

(© by kerkezz)


When Eli Hall was in his thirties, he had a kidney stone that needed surgery. Despite having medical insurance, his out-of-pocket costs for the procedure came to $4,000.

Mira promises that most routine visits will cost around $99 or slightly above.

Hall, an Arizona-based small business owner soon discovered that such costs were proving to be the norm. As a result, he stopped buying insurance altogether. Now he pays in to a subscription-based model of healthcare where $300 per month will get him, his wife, and two children unlimited access (either over the phone or through in-office visits) to doctors in the Redirect Health network. This subscription also meets the Affordable Care Act insurance mandate.

Hall's move away from the traditional insurance care model might have been deliberate, but not everyone is as lucky. In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 30.1 million people under the age of 65 were uninsured in the United States. Now, a new startup called TalktoMira is helping those without insurance access doctors for routine visits — affordably.

The service, accessed through the website (or phone or text), evaluates a user's symptoms and returns recommendations for specific doctors that factor in wait times, traffic conditions, and pricing. Khang T. Vuong, the founder and CEO, expects that doctors will be willing to provide discounts through this model, as they're eliminating the administrative costs associated with the insurance middleman. Some discounts can be as high as 50 percent, according to the website.

Mira promises that most routine visits will cost around $99 or slightly above. "This provides people who can't afford paying $3,000 to $4,000 per year in insurance premiums an alternative to access basic healthcare," Vuong says.

As of press time, Mira is available in the Washington D.C., Northern Virginia, and Dallas, and will soon expand across the country via a partnership with a national network of healthcare providers.

"For those who live in places where we don't have a presence, users can still search for the nearest and least busy urgent cares. The goal is to build a national database of walk-in clinics with straightforward upfront pricing so the 30 million uninsured and 56 million underinsured have access to same or next day primary care at an upfront affordable cost," Vuong says.

Getting Around Traditional Insurance

Mira caters to the uninsured by helping them navigate the healthcare system the moment they need it. "Currently cash patients have to rely mainly on Google for searching for options," Vuong says, adding that patients do also occasionally work with the app ZocDoc for booking. "However [ZocDoc] info has no pricing information; we fill in that much-needed gap," Vuong says. In focus groups TalktoMira conducted, a majority (70 percent) reported cost of service as their main barrier to healthcare.

As Hall's subscription-based model proves, cash-driven access like TalktoMira is not the only option for the uninsured. Direct primary care like the kind that Redirect Health delivers is another way to get around high premiums. It does so by effectively eliminating the administrative costs associated with the middleman, says David Slepak, the CEO of Redirect. Doctors who are tired of packed schedules and the administrative headaches involved with the insurance model are only too happy to be a part of subscription or cash-based models, explains Vuong.

But TalktoMira and direct primary care models don't resolve the challenges of insurance related to catastrophic events.

James Corbett, Principal at Initium Health, points out the uninsured can also access federally qualified health centers across the country or a free clinic, but these might have problems of long wait times.

"Not a Cure-All"

TalktoMira might not provide the same level of consistency that seeing a primary care doctor does, though Vuong says there are ways to see the same doctor again by choosing them through the system. He adds that TalkToMira also empowers patients by asking them about their satisfaction after the visit and to see if any further checkups might be warranted, thus enabling patients to rate their doctors just like they would any other service provider.

"I might not have one primary care doctor, but I have the entire system behind me," says Hall.

But TalktoMira and direct primary care models don't resolve the challenges of insurance related to catastrophic events. The subscription model won't kick in if the patient has a heart attack and needs to be hospitalized, for example. So patients are also encouraged to purchase a high-deductible, low-premium plan for such contingencies.

"We're spending so much on insurance for the car that we can't afford the gas to drive the car."

Vuong recognizes TalktoMira doesn't solve all the problems related to insurance, but it can at least start by helping to facilitate access to routine visits. Even the insured don't always seek out a doctor because of copays and high deductibles, Slepak says. "We're spending so much on insurance for the car that we can't afford the gas to drive the car," he says.

TalktoMira is hoping that by making routine care accessible, it might both lessen the crunch in emergency rooms where many people don't really belong, and also nip problems in the bud.

"It's not a cure-all, not a panacea," admits Vuong. "It won't get you a knee replacement. But at least I can get you in the system so you might not have to get to that point."

Poornima Apte
Poornima Apte is an engineer turned award-winning freelance writer with clips in publications such as OZY, The Week, TechCrunch, JSTOR Daily and more.
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David Kurtz making DNA sequencing libraries in his lab.

Photo credit: Florian Scherer

When David M. Kurtz was doing his clinical fellowship at Stanford University Medical Center in 2009, specializing in lymphoma treatments, he found himself grappling with a question no one could answer. A typical regimen for these blood cancers prescribed six cycles of chemotherapy, but no one knew why. "The number seemed to be drawn out of a hat," Kurtz says. Some patients felt much better after just two doses, but had to endure the toxic effects of the entire course. For some elderly patients, the side effects of chemo are so harsh, they alone can kill. Others appeared to be cancer-free on the CT scans after the requisite six but then succumbed to it months later.

"Anecdotally, one patient decided to stop therapy after one dose because he felt it was so toxic that he opted for hospice instead," says Kurtz, now an oncologist at the center. "Five years down the road, he was alive and well. For him, just one dose was enough." Others would return for their one-year check up and find that their tumors grew back. Kurtz felt that while CT scans and MRIs were powerful tools, they weren't perfect ones. They couldn't tell him if there were any cancer cells left, stealthily waiting to germinate again. The scans only showed the tumor once it was back.

Blood cancers claim about 68,000 people a year, with a new diagnosis made about every three minutes, according to the Leukemia Research Foundation. For patients with B-cell lymphoma, which Kurtz focuses on, the survival chances are better than for some others. About 60 percent are cured, but the remaining 40 percent will relapse—possibly because they will have a negative CT scan, but still harbor malignant cells. "You can't see this on imaging," says Michael Green, who also treats blood cancers at University of Texas MD Anderson Medical Center.

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Lina Zeldovich
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, Mosaic Science and other publications. She’s an alumna of Columbia University School of Journalism and the author of the upcoming book, The Other Dark Matter: The Science and Business of Turning Waste into Wealth, from Chicago University Press. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.


Reporter Michaela Haas takes Aptera's Sol car out for a test drive in San Diego, Calif.

Courtesy Haas

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If you live in a sunny state like California or Florida, you might never need to plug in the streamlined Sol because the solar panels recharge while driving and parked. Its 60-mile range is more than the average commuter needs. For cloudy weather, battery packs can be recharged electronically for a range of up to 1,000 miles. The ultra-aerodynamic shape made of lightweight materials such as carbon, Kevlar, and hemp makes the Sol four times more energy-efficient than a Tesla, according to Aptera. "The material is seven times stronger than steel and even survives hail or an angry ex-girlfriend," Anthony promises.

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Michaela Haas
Michaela Haas, PhD, is an award-winning reporter and author, most recently of Bouncing Forward: The Art and Science of Cultivating Resilience (Atria). Her work has been published in the New York Times, Mother Jones, the Huffington Post, and numerous other media. Find her at www.MichaelaHaas.com and Twitter @MichaelaHaas!