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How this Philippine Start-up Is Making Healthcare Affordable and Accessible to All

Only 5% of Filipinos have access to a healthcare plan. Here’s what Maria Health is doing to change that

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BY Cristina Morales - 27 Jun 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

When Vincent Lau left his job in Silicon Valley to strike out on his own, he didn’t want to just build the next AirBnB or Snapchat, he wanted “to solve a real problem.” That problem soon presented itself when his friend from university Paul Rivera, who had left a cushy job at Google to start his own companies in the Philippines (most notably the recruitment platform Kalibrr), told Lau about how HMO brokers in Asia don’t sell to smaller companies because it’s unprofitable.

Lau, who was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, saw the opportunity in the Philippines. “I felt that I could make a bigger impact in a developing market,” he says. In the Philippines, only 5% of the 100 million population have access to comprehensive health coverage. Though many have access to the government health program PhilHealth, the benefits of this scheme is limited, to say the least—48% of total health expenditures are out-of-pocket payments, according to a 2011 WHO report.

Lau, along with his co-founder Anna Benedicto-Yu, founded Maria Health to create a platform that would make healthcare more accessible by bringing it online, at the same time creating products that would better cater to the needs of the Filipino. The platform would also benefit HMO providers by giving them another avenue to sell their product.

Learning the ropes

Starting a business in the Philippine market was “fairly easy” for Lau, who credits Rivera for introducing him to the right people and helping him build his network. He spent the first six months of Maria Health shuttling back and forth between the U.S. and the Philippines, sleeping on his friends’ couches when he wasn’t out talking to HMO providers and discovering what it was exactly that the Filipino consumer actually wanted.

Before even beginning to hire developers and building the technology, Lau went out to understand the problems on both the demand and supply sides, which all boil down to an inefficient sales process. The consumers understand they need health insurance and health coverage, but because the fundamental nature of health insurance is complex, there needs to be an easy and simple way to access healthcare. “People wanted a marketplace,” he says. “They didn’t want just one option, they wanted to be able to shop and compare.”

“We’re solving something that’s strategically valuable from a market opportunity standpoint,” Lau continues, pointing out that the Philippines’ small businesses alone has a potential of $2 billion; individuals and families could be a $2.5 billion market. “That’s a $4.5 billion opportunity that no one is addressing.”

Broad horizons and big goals

Maria Health now has 1,200 members, most of them employees at SMEs. Because all of Maria Health’s acquisitions are online, they have data on their side. “We’re talking to so many people on a daily basis, and they’re actually telling us what they want,” he says. “So we’re in the best position to cater to them.”

Recently, the company launched its marketplace for prepaid health cards, which are designed to cover specific needs. “Some customers call us and say that they want emergency coverage only. Some only want dental,” Lau says, explaining that these prepaid health cards are more affordable alternatives to comprehensive health plans.

The prepaid health insurance marketplace has been growing steadily since its launch three months ago, but Lau and his team are constantly innovating and looking for optimal solutions. In an effort to eliminate the costs of shipping physical cards to the customer, Maria Health is now partnering with their HMO providers to create an e-voucher system. “We’re fundamentally changing how people access healthcare,” Lau says.

Lau acknowledges that the opportunities in other markets around Southeast Asia are huge, and though he would like to expand to countries like Indonesia someday, he and his team are focused on the Philippine problem. “Reaching Southeast Asia’s emerging markets is our vision, but our beachhead is in the Philippines,” he says. “For now, we are 100% focused on the Philippines. Our goal is to impact 1,000,000 lives.”