Leading health insurers are leveraging technology to deliver better access for patients and easier system navigation for care providers. Insurers that deliver on those demands not only increase their own competitive advantage, they also save money and help change the perception of the market as overly complex and bureaucratic. Cloud-based contracting has emerged as one compelling, cost-effective and easy-to-deploy method for improving service and modernizing the health care system.

UnitedHealth Group's experience with digital contracts and e-signatures illustrates how these technologies are changing the way insurers and their stakeholders do business. The company is rolling out e-contracting as part of its physician contracting process. Traditionally, the physician contracting process can take five weeks or longer to finalize. That was the status quo for decades, but as UnitedHealth began looking at improving its processes, it determined that paperless contracting could better serve physicians' needs, saving them time and administrative costs, and helping the company build stronger relationships with physicians joining its care provider network.

Companies such as UnitedHealth have found that digital contracting can decrease the time required to sign new health care professionals by up to 80 percent. By creating a cloud-based contract process for all new care providers in their networks, such insurers are meeting compliance requirements while saving more than 1 million pieces of paper each year.

Today, UnitedHealth delivers contracts to physicians electronically and accepts their signatures digitally. Not only is the online environment secure, but the e-contract lets health care providers access and review contracts on any device they choose (iPad, laptop, etc.), e-sign them and return the completed documents online. Physicians get detailed electronic records of the process, which, in turn, lowers their administrative and postage costs.

Benefits for Insurers, Physicians and Patients

For insurers eager to expand their care provider networks and meet the needs of more patients, adding physicians expeditiously is important. Physicians see more patients and increase their guaranteed reimbursements, and for the patient, rapid agreements mean greater choices for them and easier access to care, as well as lower out-of-pocket costs.

UnitedHealth saw all of these benefits during its recent e-contracting pilot. Of the 2,000 contracts processed during its test-drive of cloud contracting, 49 percent were signed and returned within the first week. That compares to only six percent of contracts that are typically completed within the first week of the company's traditional paper contracting process. In the coming year, UnitedHealthcare, the company's health benefits business, plans to roll out e-signing to more than 225,000 individual physicians, physician groups and mass contracts. Once fully implemented, the company expects that digital contracts will save approximately 66 tons of paper and improve service for the company's partners and customers.

Some of the other positive effects of this e-contracting technology include:

1. Speedier contract completion: E-signatures speed the contracting cycle by 200 to 400 percent, meaning insurers can close a deal in a matter of hours rather than the weeks such agreements once required.

2. Proven legality: Digital signatures are as binding as their physical counterparts. This was confirmed by the federal E-SIGN Act of 2000 and has been upheld ever since.

3. Security and fraud protection: Health insurers have compliance issues to consider, and e-signatures facilitate that. Audit trails and cloud-based security measures protect all parties throughout the contracting process.

4. Widespread familiarity and acceptance: In the rare instances when a client or care provider is unfamiliar with paperless contracting, insurers can tout the compelling benefits and security parameters.

Paperless business processes are gaining popularity in a number of industries. Companies see the benefits of reduced expenses, easier administration and improved customer satisfaction. In the health insurance industry, where consumer choice matters more than ever before, electronic signing is one way in which insurers can give care providers and consumers more options, attracting and retaining more business.

Jason Lemkin is VP of Web business services at Adobe.

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