Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield Delaware is adding Wellinks, a virtual provider of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) support, to its network, the companies shared with MedCity News exclusively.

COPD is a chronic lung disease that leads to limited air flow and issues with breathing. It includes conditions like emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Starting July 1, Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield Delaware members will be able to access Wellinks’ COPD services. The insurer has 500,000 members.

New Haven, Connecticut-based Wellinks offers virtual pulmonary rehabilitation services, which provide patients with exercises and education for lung health and reducing shortness of breath. Patients are also able to receive personalized coaching to help them reach their goals. In addition, users can track their symptoms, see their pulmonary data and understand their medication plan through connected devices and a mobile app. The company serves health plans and value-based care providers.

“Simply, we want people to live fully and breathe freely,” said Geoff Matous, president of Wellinks, in an interview. “How we do that is through a virtual-first care model.”

He added that Wellinks’ services are there to support patients alongside other healthcare players.

“We are there with the member between those doctor’s visits,” he said. “Hopefully before those hospitalizations happen, but if they do happen, [we’re there] afterwards to help reduce the likelihood of readmission and provide the care that often can exist inside the four walls of the clinic.”

Matous declined to share the business model of the arrangement between Wellinks and Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield Delaware.

The news comes at a time when COPD is the third leading cause of death by chronic disease. It is also the fifth most expensive disease: About $49 billion is spent on COPD in the healthcare system annually. COPD affects 12.5 million Americans, with women being particularly affected, the American Lung Association shows. In Delaware, about 48,000 people have COPD, according to the National Institutes of Health. 

“There’s a huge problem with what we call the missing millions who are under-diagnosed because they might not have access to spirometry, conventional lung testing that you’d use to get a confirmed diagnosis. Or maybe they’re just generally disengaged or disconnected with healthcare. … It’s a condition that largely impacts our older adult community,” Matous said. “Many times it will have an outsized impact on communities of socio economic disadvantage in underserved populations.”

Studies done on Wellinks found that its services improved clinical outcomes after 24 weeks and resulted in net cost savings of $5,721 per patient.

Another company that offers COPD support is Kaia Health, a digital therapeutics company that launched a virtual solution for pulmonary rehabilitation last year.

Photo: ThitareeSarmkasat, Getty Images

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