UnitedHealthcare launches a smaller, ‘very, very different’ insurer

UnitedHealthcare is facing competition this year in Atlanta and Chicago from a new name in health insurance — a carrier that’s actually one of its subsidiaries.

For the first time, individual shoppers are buying coverage from Harken Health, a company with about 100 employees based at an office on the UnitedHealthcare corporate campus in Minnetonka.

Harken is being run as an independent entity, executives said, with a distinct approach to selling coverage. Subscribers receive unlimited access to primary care, without copays, if they visit a health center owned by Harken Health.

“It’s like an automobile company that makes a brand of car, and then with better luck or worse luck they also make a Saturn,” said Roger Feldman, a health insurance expert at the University of Minnesota.

Traditionally, UnitedHealthcare has been a bigger player selling health insurance to large employer groups, Feldman said, rather than to individuals and small groups being courted by Harken. So, the new offering looks like an effort to “make some more headway into that market segment,” he said.

The market for individual policies is growing with the federal Affordable Care Act, which provides tax credits to those who buy private coverage through a government-run health insurance exchange. Harken Health is on the federal government’s HealthCare.gov exchange for Atlanta and Chicago, where UnitedHealthcare plans are offered to the same consumers.

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