By Anna Lardinois, Startup Storyteller
Ross Bjella says medical benefits is “one of the most exciting businesses out there.”
Bjella should know. The founder and CEO of Alithias Inc., a patient advocacy company, is an expert in the field. In 2010, he started the business that strives to get the employees of self-insured employers the best possible healthcare, while saving money for everyone involved.
“For me, anytime you’re dealing with people and health, and you have a passion for getting people healthier or saving money, there are so many opportunities here. It’s just an exciting time,” he said.
Alithias means “truth” in Greek. It is the commitment to truth that is the origin of the business.
“I truly believe that most employees are being taken advantage of by the way our health system and benefit plans work,” Bjella said. “Employees often don’t understand how to use their benefits to save money and that’s why I started the company. I felt my employees didn’t have a chance when talking to their insurance company or a health system, or when trying to negotiate their bill, or to simply figure out if the bill was correct. There was no one available to give them any help.”
As the former leader of a company with 300 employees, Bjella witnessed how unexpected medical expenses can wreak havoc on the lives of people.
“For them, having to pay their deductible was a financially devastating event. Until you see that fear in their eyes about paying an unexpected medical bill, you don’t really understand,” he said. “It just hurt me to my soul and that’s the type of thing that keeps you going as an entrepreneur who is trying to solve a problem. You know, you have got to believe in it. And I think belief in doing the right thing matters.”
What does Alithias do to help employees navigate the system?
“We essentially work in conjunction with human resources to answer any benefits-related questions, because benefit plans can be very complex,” he said. “We interpret the language from the plan documents so that it’s understood by the employees, and we facilitate the employees getting the most value from their benefit plan by working with the insurance brokers to execute the strategies that they put in place to save the employer money.”
Althias boasts an impressive five-to-one average return on investment for their clients. The company does this in large part by becoming experts in the local health care markets. “I don’t think anyone knows Wisconsin health care better than we do,” he said.
That expertise allows Althias to find the best deals on high ticket healthcare costs, like surgeries and hospital stays. Bjella believes cutting healthcare costs for employers is critical to the economy.
“We cannot sustain the growth in health care costs and remain competitive, either locally, on a statewide basis, or internationally, because health care costs are killing business in Wisconsin,” he said.
Headquartered in Milwaukee, the company has advocates in Florida, Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, in addition to Wisconsin.
“My wife and I’ve been in Wisconsin for 25 years now and we love where we live. The employer community here is great,” he said. “For the most part, everyone in the business community wants to support entrepreneurs and give good ideas a chance, so it’s a great work environment from an entrepreneur’s standpoint.”
“Milwaukee is a good environment to start a company,” he continued. “I have paid very little in rent and fixed costs. Milwaukee is great for that. I ran the company out of my house and various coffee shops for the first two or three years before we got an office. I also think that with as many universities as we have nearby, there is a lot of access to talent here.”
While Bjella finds Milwaukee an inexpensive, talent-rich location, he knows that the area is not without its challenges. He is inspired by his experiences with the West Coast startup community.
“People in California are much more likely to take a risk, and they’re not afraid to pull money out of their pocket and write a check for $100,000,” he said “There’s a lot of people in California that have that kind of money, but I think on a per capita basis, we (Wisconsinites) probably have as much money or more than people in California. The difference is that the people here are much less willing to bet on a unicorn or new idea. That does make it harder for people in the startup community to put a compelling story together where someone is going to write a check at a significant valuation.”
Bjella believes a change in the way we think about entrepreneurship would bring about positive changes in the entrepreneurial ecosystem.
“Getting people to believe that we can do great things in Milwaukee is a little bit of a challenge,” he said. “People go out to California because they think they can’t do it in Indianapolis or Kansas City or Atlanta — where they come from. But everyone goes to California thinking they can more easily make it there. But what I’ve realized is that it’s just a mentality and that we in Wisconsin have all the skills of the people out there. It’s that strong belief that has kept me here.”
Bjella continued, “I think when entrepreneurs start having success, the ecosystem is going to build on itself. And when you have groups like gener8tor providing that kind of education, you start building that ecosystem. I truly support the entrepreneurial ecosystem and if I can stop people from making the mistakes that I’ve made, I’m happy to talk to anyone.”
Reflecting on his career as an entrepreneur in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries, Bjella says his proudest accomplishment as a business owner is that his employees never have had to worry about their paychecks under his leadership.
“One of the things I’m most proud of is that I’ve never missed payroll, ever,” he said. “That doesn’t mean I didn’t have to take money out of my personal account to make it, but I’ve always made payroll, and so anyone who’s joined me always got a paycheck. You have to take pride in the little things, I think.”
Bjella is reluctant to take the accolades that come from having a successful and growing business more than a decade after it was launched.
“It’s been somewhat bittersweet for me because I expected that we would be able to grow faster and do better,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate to have a successful career and this project is taking a lot longer than I expected. It’s been challenging, but it’s certainly been one of the most rewarding jobs and I think that’s what’s kept me going.”
“But from a financial perspective, it hasn’t been the best outcome for me yet, other than the fact that Alithias is profitable, we’re growing and doing good work. We provide a service that people appreciate. So, when I check the box of all the things that I would want in the business, we’re checking off a lot of them.”
As challenging as the road has been, Alithias has been a pleasure for Bjella to run.
“I’m not afraid of work,” he said “And it’s all about if you have passion for what you do. It doesn’t feel like work. It makes it easy for me to stay late when I know that someone’s personal situation is affected by what I do today. That makes it easy for me to come to work. I think if you’d ask my employees what they like best about their job, it’s that they can literally affect someone’s life every day in a positive way.”
Growth is in the future for Alithias. Commenting on the company’s next steps, Bjella said, “we want to expand, whether it’s regionally or nationally. I’m constantly looking for strategies or partners that will help us do that. I’m not intending to go out and raise more money. I’ve raised over $1,000,000 to support the platform we have. I think that we have a model that works, that can be replicated and scaled. Now, it’s just finding the right partners both from self-insured employers who need our services, or adding new services, or doing a merger or acquisition that will help us take our solution to the companies that can most benefit from them.”
To learn more about Alithias, Inc. connect with them here.