Cassie Choi, RN, brings a patient-first mindset to everything she does, including building Pair Team with her co-founder, Neil Batlivala.
When the two met in 2016 at Forward, they became friends and considered how to use their passion for healthcare access with a tech-enabled approach.
Almost five years later, their remote care team works directly with primary care practices and clinics to provide a high-touch experience for patients that connects their care outside the four walls of the clinic.
Building upon that model, they invest in more clinical services for high-risk and high-needs individuals—homeless, those with severe mental illness, substance use issues, those transitioning from incarceration, and high utilizers.
Q: When did you and Neil get the idea for Pair Team? What has growth looked like?
A: We were familiar with how to build a tech-enabled care team and provide a high-touch experience for the members of Forward and understood what that experience provided in terms of outcomes, engagement and care plans.
In January 2019, we thought about how we could bring the concierge model we built at Forward to safety net patients and Medicaid patients.
It's been an incremental build to earn the right to get there. When we first started, we were balancing building our technology platform and helping our care team run more efficiently while also banking on clinics’ willingness to partner with a care team they've never met in person.
We moved into Medicaid because we knew the work we were doing aligned with value-based outcomes. Patient experience really matters, and long term, we really wanted to shift toward clinical outcomes and reduction in total cost of care.
Our care model, as well as the populations we serve, has evolved over time.
Q: What drew you to apply to 1501 Health?
A: The opportunity to be in an accelerator that is trying to work together between payers and providers was a really interesting environment to be in to get support and advice from both sides of the field that we're playing in.
Being able to get feedback around their priorities, how they're thinking about contracting structures, the delays that we could anticipate on the payer side and then learning what providers do well and then figuring out how to translate it into a product allowed us to learn a lot quicker.
Q: What’s a lasting lesson that stuck out to you from 1501 Health and something you would like to pass on to other entrepreneurs through the program?
A: It's true for all founders, but especially in healthcare, it's really about who you know. There are so many knowledgeable people in healthcare and so many people doing such amazing things.
Being able to meet and get in touch with and build relationships with our cabinet advisory board was incredible to just learn from their amazing experience and benefit from opportunities that can come from just them keeping you in mind.
Our cohort was awesome. We talked about ways to collaborate with each other, helped each other, made introductions for each other.
Having relationships with other co-founders or with other founders in healthcare allows you to have a partner in thinking through some of the barriers that are true, regardless of what your product is.
Q: How do you feel accessible pathways for primary care impact someone's overall wellbeing?
A: Primary care is so incredibly important, but there is a shortage of primary care providers across the country, especially in areas that are hard to service such as rural areas or lower income communities.
Being able to provide accessible primary care is so crucial to making sure someone not only has good preventive services, but someone to quarterback their more chronic conditions between specialists, hospital visits, or whatever it may be.
Not having a foundational relationship with a primary care provider leaves you languishing in the system alone and oftentimes leads to poor health outcomes because there's no one looking comprehensively and holistically. And that’s the goal of Pair Team – to improve the way people receive quality primary care
Q: Why do you think telehealth is such an important tool, but underused for underserved communities?
A: Telehealth is important in creating greater access and reducing barriers to care. It's an easy thing to step into a break room and take a call that can be highly valuable to your care plan.
Especially for underserved communities who often don't have transportation or they're living two hours away from their local clinic or they work three jobs and have to put food on the table for their kids and aren't really able to conveniently prioritize their care.
Telemedicine provides an alternative way to connect with their healthcare providers and convenience always wins.
There are still barriers for many communities—broadband shortages, device access, internet affordability—so we're just trying to meet people where they're at. Solutions tend to be more app based and video based, and we need to adjust that access point and pathway to make it easier to access us and not further push underserved communities away from care.
Q: Back in 2021, you secured about $7.3 million in funding. After reaching this milestone, how did you navigate the next step of growth?
A: At that time, we were looking at expanding preventive services with Medicaid clinics, helping them achieve some of the basic levels of value-based payment programs both in California and New York.
We had a lot of interest from clinics and health plans to partner on that, but we were keeping an eye on CalAIM, a Medicaid expansion program and enhanced care management program, essentially whole person funding for whole person care teams.
The release and rollout of CalAIM had been delayed repeatedly because of COVID-19, so we weren't sure when that was going to go live. Sure enough, it went live in January, so we are using that funding to expand our care team.
The first six months was building up our operational and product requirements, and then we launched in June across six clinics. Now we're launching into 12 more. As you can imagine, our team has almost tripled since that funding announcement, and it's all related to providing care for more and more populations. Growth has been significant since that funding.
Q: You recently participated in the White House Equity, Health Equity Leaders Roundtable. What was that experience like and why do you think it's important to take a step further and add in that networking/advocacy component?
A: That's been one of the most amazing experiences I've been able to do outside of, but related to, Pair Team. When I was invited, it was amazing to see that they saw the value in Pair Team, but also in me as a voice for health equity. To be able to represent the nursing profession and the work that Pair Team and other nurses are doing was an amazing opportunity.
One of the things I see, being a part of Medicaid and in such a regulated market, is that there's such a disconnect between policymakers, the policy, and then the implementation needed to create the impact those policymakers were intending.
Being able to highlight those barriers or implementation requirements to the White House where they could make an immediate impact was amazing.
The flip side was being able to witness firsthand how this administration is thinking about different issues in healthcare and opportunities to improve health equity for the patients we serve at Pair Team.
For example, they invested a lot of money into expanding broadband access, including infrastructure and direct citizen assistance. There's also a child tax credit that people can apply for without filing a tax return. These are incredibly impactful for the communities we serve. Being able to learn that from the White House and then take it directly to the people that we serve was huge.
Q: What qualities or best practices do you think contribute to your success in communicating with your co-founder?
A: Prioritize that co-founder relationship over almost everything. You could have amazing product market fit and growth, but if you and your co-founder fall apart, that creates chaos within the company and can lead to the company failing even though you have an amazing product.
Having trust in each other, fostering that relationship, remembering why you became founders together. For Neil and I, we were friends first and the only person that can understand the highs and lows of a startup and the stress you're under is your co-founder.
Neil and I have lunch once every other week for an hour. He's remote in New York and I'm in San Francisco, but we always make time to just have lunch together and the rule is not to talk about work. Not only does it help build your relationship, but it also provides context for what's going on in your co-founder's life that they could be bringing to day-to-day work and other big decisions.
Neil and I also meet every other week with our leadership coach, which is almost like founder therapy, to provide a safe space to talk through concerns and really get ahead of it as well as practice our communication.
People have different communication styles; Neil and I for sure do. Learning to practice how to communicate, make each other feel heard and hear each other is a really important thing that you have to get right in order to build a business together.
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About 1501 Health
1501 Health is a unique partnership between Healthworx and LifeBridge Health, representing expertise in both health insurance and financing (payers) and healthcare delivery and services (providers). The investment and incubation program empowers entrepreneurs to get their innovative solutions to market and expand their impact in healthcare quality, access and affordability. To learn more about 1501Health, visit www.1501Health.com.
Healthworx operates at the intersection of healthcare and innovation by creating, co-creating and investing in companies that are improving healthcare quality, accessibility, affordability and equity. As the innovation and investment arm of CareFirst, Healthworx envisions a healthier future for all people by changing the way health works. To learn more about Healthworx, visit https://www.healthworx.com.
About LifeBridge Health
LifeBridge Health is one of the largest, most comprehensive providers of health services in Maryland. LifeBridge Health includes Sinai Hospital of Baltimore, Northwest Hospital, Carroll Hospital, Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital, Grace Medical Center and related affiliates. For more information, visit www.lifebridgehealth.org.