Maziar “Mazi” Rasulnia arrives at the offices of Pack Health at 3613 6th Avenue South in Birmingham on a muggy Monday morning. He is amiable and outgoing, but his warm demeanor belies the seriousness of his work.
Rasulnia and his business partner, Will Wright, are the founders of Pack Health, a startup that develops custom solutions to help chronically ill patients improve their health.
“Fundamentally, it comes down to behavior change, ” he says. “How do we get individuals who are living with chronic conditions to live healthier lives?”
The Birmingham Business Alliance named Pack Health as the “Emerging Business of the Year” in 2015, and the national alumni society of his alma mater, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), selected him among its Excellence in Business Top 25 class of 2015. Rasulnia presented the keynote speech at this year’s event on June 24.
“I was genuinely surprised, ” says Rasulnia. “Being in business that was this young, and to be recognized so quickly, it was very humbling for me and Will. … We really want to make this an Alabama success story.”
Health and medicine have long been an interest in Rasulnia’s family. They immigrated to the United States from Shiraz, Iran, in 1986. Rasulnia grew up in Nashville. His father worked as a pulmonary researcher at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. His brother went on to become a senior health scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
After earning his B.S. degree in biology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia, Rasulnia says he chose UAB because of its MBA/master’s in public health dual degree program and because his brother was in graduate school there.
“He was inquisitive, very bright and the type of individual who gets the academics, ” says one of Rasulnia’s former professors, Eric Jack, Ph.D., who is now the dean of UAB’s Collat School of Business. “But he also gets the applied side of things. ‘What are we going to do with this information, and how are we going to leverage that information?’”
Rasulnia graduated in 2003. Three years later, he went on to earn a doctorate in health services administration from UAB. But instead of a career in academia, he set his sights on the business world.
He took a job with CE Outcomes LLC, a Birmingham firm that assessed the performance of physicians and other healthcare professionals to help them make informed decisions regarding medical information and education. While at CE Outcomes, Rasulnia worked in business development and research.
“That allowed me to get a taste of what the business world would look like and how I would apply my skills, ” says Rasulnia. “I learned a lot in that period of time.”
He rose through the ranks to become the company’s president by 2011. Then in 2013, he struck out on his own and founded M Consulting, a firm that would provide consulting services to health plans, businesses and health systems trying to navigate policies like the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA) that became law in 2010.
Under ACA, hospitals with higher than expected patient readmissions for specific conditions such as heart attack, heart failure and pneumonia can face penalties.
Moreover, as more patients under ACA purchase higher-deductible insurance plans, they have a greater incentive to keep costs low by staying healthy and reducing the likelihood of hospital or emergency room visits. But complying with dietary restrictions, shedding pounds or keeping up with medications is challenging for many patients, and Rasulnia says the need for more services to help them successfully follow their health care providers’ recommendations became apparent.
In July of 2013, Rasulnia met Wright, who at the time was working for
McKinsey & Co., a global consulting firm, advising clients on the implications of ACA. Both men saw an opportunity to start a small company focused on coaching patients through the complicated maze of healthcare.
“I basically felt that Mazi was a guy I could do this with, ” says Wright. “Our skill sets complement each other. Our networks complement each other and our understanding of what’s required to succeed is aligned.”
So just months after Rasulnia opened M Consulting, he and Wright incorporated Pack Health in October 2013 and set up shop inside Innovation Depot, the nonprofit business incubator in Birmingham. By the following spring, he says, they had their first patient.
Pack Health works like this: Physicians prescribe Pack Health to patients struggling with chronic conditions such as diabetes, COPD, asthma, cardiovascular disease, hepatitis C or cancer. Pack Health assigns a personal coach or health adviser to each patient — called “members” in their business model.
Pack Health’s 13 health advisers are social workers and graduate students pursuing degrees in various health professions. A physician, the company’s medical director, oversees the health advisers. They can also consult with physician members of Pack Health’s advisory board, he says.
During the first 90 days, the health advisers communicate with and coach their assigned members five days a week by phone, text, e-mail or app. They provide materials to educate members about their conditions. They offer one-on-one coaching to motivate members and hold them accountable for achieving their health goals, whether it is losing weight or lowering their HbA1c glucose levels. They also help members solve problems like explaining a complicated hospital bill, arranging for transportation to a doctor’s appointment or researching funding sources for pricey prescriptions.
Pack Health boasts a reported 36 percent fewer emergency room visits and glucose HbA1c levels falling one percentage point on average among members during the first three months on the program. After 90 days, members enter a transition period, Rasulnia says. During that time, health advisers check in with members once a month to ensure they continue their progress toward wellness.
The idea for Pack Health is modeled after delivery services like Blue Apron, Birchbox.com and even the ride-sharing company Uber, Rasulnia says.
“So how do you take that same idea and bring disease management to your house?” Rasulnia asks.
“We didn’t want to do the Home Depot, do-it-yourself way. If that was the case, then the problem would have been solved by now. What we wanted to do was bring a beautiful package. Represent that you’re not alone. Here’s all the information you need, ” he says. “If we’re going to have a relationship, let’s make sure we invite you in a unique way versus saying ‘Go download an app and tell us all your information and we’ll get back in touch with you.’ That’s very impersonal.”
Currently, members have to pay for Pack Health themselves or get it through their employer. The pricing model is $299.99 a year or $99 to enroll plus $19.99 per month. Pack Health is now in discussions with insurance companies to get the service covered as a benefit, he says.
Since opening in 2013, Pack Health has established partnerships with organizations like the American Cancer Society, COPD Foundation, National Psoriasis Foundation and UAB Health System. In February 2016, Pack Health announced a new partnership with Brookwood-Baptist Health System to improve outcomes for patients with chronic and acute heart failure. Then in May, Pack Health launched another partnership with WebMD/Medscape. Their collaboration will let WebMD Education and WebMD Engagement users enroll in Pack Health’s coaching program, and Pack Health will direct members to WebMD content as appropriate, he says.
Rasulnia and Wright say Pack Health has close to 3, 000 members in 50 states, and they hope to someday introduce the company to a global market. But, they plan to keep their headquarters in Birmingham. In February, the Pack Health team moved into their new office space on 6th Avenue South.
“We love Birmingham, and we want to continue to help this community, ” Rasulnia says. “We had an opportunity to move and we said no. We wanted to do it here. That may have worked against us in the short term, but in the long term, it’s going to be what I think is a great story.”
Gail Short and Art Meripol are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.
Text By GAIL ALLYN SHORT // Photo by ART MERIPOL