Making the pitch: What Cigna is looking for from potential partners

Another day, another startup trying to crack its way into the healthcare industry.

Cigna executive Heather Dlugolenski
Heather Dlugolenski (LinkedIn)

As more and more potential investments hit the scene, what do these companies need to really make an impression on the backers that can help them grow? Heather Dlugolenski, senior vice president and U.S. commercial strategy officer at Cigna Healthcare, said the key is to make clear from the get-go what is the unique value a solution brings to the table.

Dlugolenski said down with Fierce Healthcare at the HLTH conference earlier this month. In her role, she leads the charge in developing Cigna's health plan product line, which includes identifying potential partners that can bring something new and differentiated to the table.

"What I'm the most interested in is understanding what the innovation potential is, and figuring out how the one of the companies and the one of Cigna Healthcare and create the three," she said.

As of its second-quarter earnings report, Cigna's U.S. commercial business represents nearly 16 million people. That includes a wide array of unique needs that solutions partners could address.

There are "bright spots of opportunity all over," Dlugolenski said, so it doesn't take much for pitch meetings to become a buzz of white noise. Leading with the one thing that the company does "better than anyone else" makes is easier to visualize how that solution can fit within Cigna's broader strategy.

Discussing overall return on investment right from the beginning is less tangible, she said.

"I want to touch and feel and understand it, because that gives me a lot more clarity to what that one dimension coupled with our broader strategy—the capabilities that we have and/or the capabilities that Evernorth has—can lead to a better ROI in totality," Dlugolenski said.

An example of how this can work, she said, is Cigna's concierge care platform, called Pathwell. The program integrates key strengths at Evernorth, including data analytics, clinical expertise and digital solutions, with Cigna's benefits and provider network.

The goal of Pathwell is to offer members a personalized, comprehensive care experience for people with high-cost conditions. It launched a year ago initially for people with musculoskeletal conditions and who take injectable or infusion biologic drugs.

Dlugolenski said that with infusions, there can be significant variation in how much the drugs cost, and that is one key element of the program's value proposition. However, Pathwell is also designed to harness Evernorth's capabilities to ensure the team is also working to improve the patient experience.

"To that end, we look to where there are pockets of really excellent capabilities that surround the patient with information, clinical support, support for their family and more broadly support for their life outside of getting the infusion," she said.

Critical partnerships don't begin and end with startups, either, Dlugolenski said. Her team is also evaluating and cultivating partnerships with providers that can back strategic initiatives like the push toward value-based care.

Employers want to continue to allow their workers to have as many provider options as possible. Cigna can facilitate that through these value-based relationships by ensuring the providers in its network are offering high-value, high-quality care.

"There's such a wonderful opportunity that exists within elevated performance of providers," Dlugolenski said. "And so one of the things that I'm very interested in is the techniques, digital behavior, change, transparency, otherwise, that help us really unlock that potential."