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The Buddy System

By Larry Dignan  |  Posted 2005-05-23 Print this article Print

UnitedHealth Group's David Astar almost can't help collaborating with his CIO. They sit in the same room, along with his other technology execs.

David Astar, the chief operating officer of Uniprise, the unit of UnitedHealth Group responsible for most of the health-care giant's information-technology operations, likes to have chief information officer John Santelli nearby.

Within about 10 feet, to be exact.

That's how far Santelli sits from Astar on the sixth floor at UnitedHealth's Minnetonka, Minn., headquarters. The office space is one big opening without doors, cubicle walls or any other barrier found at most corporate offices.

In fact, Santelli's lead project manager, Linda Peterson, sits at the next desk over. From there, every vice president representing Uniprise's most important functions—claims processing, customer support, call centers—is in the room at cherry-wood-colored desks.

The message of this "bullpen" seating style: "I.T. needs to know the business," Astar says. "And business needs to know I.T."

Astar created the setup about a year ago. "We looked at how we got things accomplished and asked, 'Why aren't we always together?'" he explains. "This way speeds interaction and things come together faster. We interact and meet every day."

Astar Oversees Technology Infrastructure and Claims Processing at Uniprise, a Division of Unitedhealth Group. He Joined Unitedhealth in 2000 as Senior Vice President of Technology for Unitedhealth Technologies, Where He Led the Initial Development of Internet Portals and Was in Charge of Information-Technology Operations for the Company. in 2003, He Was Named Chief Operating Officer of Ingenix, a Unitedhealth Group Company Responsible for Health-Related Data Services. He Assumed His Present Position at Uniprise in 2004.

That's Astar's management style: Keep projects on track but don't fret about course corrections. Believe in information technology and remember the big picture. At UnitedHealth Group, that means processing claims just as easily as financial markets trade stocks—instantly, around-the-clock and flawlessly.

Is UnitedHealth Group there yet?

No, Astar says. But he is confident that the company will get there.

"I don't look at I.T. and think computers," he says. "It's part of a scientific approach to find a solution. And the uniqueness comes from how it's integrated.''

For instance, United recently tested a voice recognition system that is integrated with the underlying databases tracking customer claims. The idea: Call up relevant information on a customer's claims, then deliver an answer or pick the right claims representative to put on the phone—all before the caller gets impatient. The goal: Eliminate errors and confusion.

That may mean custom-building the code that connects the voice recognition system and the data; and repeated tests, until the result works. And if that requires casting calls to find the most appealing voice for the automated system, dubbed VETSS (Voice Enabled Telephone Self-Service), so be it, Astar says, even if there isn't an immediate return.

The mandate: Get rid of the previous robotic interactive voice response system and replace it with one that won't have customers hitting "0" after a few seconds.

UnitedHealth Group will put its money where its goals are. The company spends $1 billion a year on information technology, or 2.7% of its 2004 sales of $37 billion. Better than $300 million is spent on developing software. In the last year, Santelli completed 27 projects that were considered "large scale," with price tags of at least $5 million each.

Managing those projects requires ongoing feedback. And feedback isn't hard to come by when Astar could hop over his desk and land in Santelli's lap.

There are 140 key operating metrics measuring items such as total cost of ownership, on-time percentages and break-even points that are used to gauge projects, but much of the feedback is informal and takes place in that big room on the sixth floor.

Perhaps it's Susan Edberg, vice president of customer care, who wants another feature in a call center application. Or Tom O'Brien, vice president of transaction operations, who has an idea to speed up claims processing. Or Astar, who may want a new function added, such as a claims processing tutorial.

How a project is selected and tweaked comes down to how the group can ultimately deliver returns shareholders will recognize.

Astar, who says "I.T.. metrics are a bit obtuse," favors measurements that matter to shareholders. Do projects add up to being more efficient, driving more claims through the pipeline or growing new businesses? A shareholder doesn't care if a new claims processing system got a return of, say, 10% in three months. But that shareholder will care if the system eliminates 10 million phone calls a year to cut $6 million in costs, reduces postage costs by $3 million and boosts productivity so you don't have to hire $4 million in annual salaries, a.k.a. people.

Business Editor
Larry formerly served as the East Coast news editor and Finance Editor at CNET News.com. Prior to that, he was editor of Ziff Davis Inter@ctive Investor, which was, according to Barron's, a Top-10 financial site in the late 1990s. Larry has covered the technology and financial services industry since 1995, publishing articles in WallStreetWeek.com, Inter@ctive Week, The New York Times, and Financial Planning magazine. He's a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.
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