HIGH CARE, LOW COST

These innovative Houston clinics are taking urgent care to the next level

Next Level employs licensed technicians and physicians. Photo courtesy of Next Level Urgent Care

When Houston physician Juliet Breeze took her son to the emergency room on a weekend, she was shocked at how expensive the treatment ended up being.

"We got excellent care, but an unreasonably high bill to go with it," she says. "From my experience, I knew the care we received actually cost a fraction of what we were charged. I knew that if I had made this costly healthcare mistake as a doctor and business person, others were probably getting 'stung' too."

Having previously managed a multi-location orthopedic practice called Richmond Bone & Joint Clinic and been a family practice doctor before that, Dr. Breeze had seen first-hand the increased cost of medical care provided at "hospital pricing."

She knew then that she wanted to find some way to be part of the solution for escalating costs in healthcare, so in 2013 Dr. Breeze founded Next Level Urgent Care.

The clinics provide an excellent alternative for the treatment of non-life-threatening health conditions. The services are faster and, on average, five to 10 times less expensive than a visit to the emergency room. They accept all major insurance carriers, including Medicare and Medicaid, and a typical copay costs only $25-$75, compared to $150-$500 at an emergency room.

There are 15 convenient locations throughout the Houston area that are open from 9 am-9 pm, seven days per week. The clinics in Champions, Cinco Ranch, Copperfield, Long Meadow, Meyerland, Sienna Plantation, and Sugar Land clinics all open early at 7 am. The only time the clinics are closed is on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.

"With more and more parents working, a thing like getting a sick or injured kid to the doctor before they close for the day, and what to do about care on the weekends, is a real issue," says Dr. Breeze. "For this reason, emergency rooms have become more popular for health problems that aren't true emergencies. It has become such a trend for patients to use ERs that many insurances have started shifting the cost of this kind of healthcare to the patients themselves."

She even points out that "most carriers charge much higher copays and deductibles for ER than for urgent care or an office visit these days."

But what about retail clinics, often located in drugstores and groceries? They're a partial answer to the problem, admits Dr. Breeze, but they lack vital equipment like X-ray rooms and licensed technicians, along with services such as stitches, splinting, and IV fluids.

Besides providing incredible savings to patients, Dr. Breeze found that she and her team could help address employer healthcare needs as well. They quickly became skilled at efficiently handling work injuries, pre-employment physical examinations, and other services that employers required for their staff. As part of this evolution, in 2015, Next Level was selected by the County of Fort Bend to manage a cost-free clinic for its employees. Their success in Fort Bend led to being selected by Montgomery County, Brazoria County, and the Houston Independent School District to provide onsite medical care on their campuses as well.

This month, Next Level launched its first CareXtend Clinic for the Goose Creek ISD, which combines the benefits of onsite care (like reduced lost time from work and increased access) with the cost savings of virtual medicine.

CareXtend Clinics are single-room clinics staffed with a "Care Concierge" who can assist the off-site medical providers during the physical examination utilizing state-of-the-art digital diagnostic equipment. To cut down on cost, the medical provider joins the visit by video link but unlike traditional telemedicine, the visits include vital signs, complete physical examinations, lab draws, and other routine in-office testing.

Next Level Urgent Care has several new projects launching this year, including selling pre-paid bundled savings plans to individuals and employers. These cards can be shared with friends and family for deep savings on the cash-pay pricing and are perfect for those without insurance or with very high deductible plans.

They have also begun quoting subscription plans for unlimited urgent care services to employers outside of traditional insurance plans. This model allows employers to pay a flat rate directly to cover acute care for their employees. Capping employer costs while encouraging the use of urgent care and reducing the out-of-pocket expense for the employees are the main benefits of this exciting new model. The subscription plans are especially attractive now that Next Level has such a large footprint in the Greater Houston Area.

"Next Level is a woman-owned, locally based business," says Dr. Breeze. "Who better to treat Houstonians than us?"

Dr. Juliet Breeze founded Next Level in 2013. Photo courtesy of Next Level Urgent Care

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Building Houston

 
 

Cheers Health has expanded its product line as it evolves as a wellness-focused brand. Photo courtesy of Cheers

Houston-based startup Cheers first got a wave of brand devotees after it was passed over by investors on Shark Tank in 2018. In the years since, Cheers secured an impressive investment, launched new products, and became a staple hangover cure for customers. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted businesses, the company rose to the occasion and experienced its first profitable year as drinking and wellness habits changed across America.

Cheers initially started its company under the name Thrive+ with a hangover-friendly pill that promised to minimize the not-so-fun side effects that come after a night out. The capsules support the liver by replacing lost vitamins, reduce GABAa rebound and lower the alcohol-induced acetaldehyde toxicity levels in the body. The company's legacy product complemented social calendars and nights on the town, providing next day relief.

With COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures, the days of pub crawls and social events were numbered. Cheers founder Brooks Powell saw the massive behavior change in people consuming alcohol, and leaned into his vision of becoming more than just a hangover cure but an "alcohol-related health company," he says.

When the pandemic first hit, Powell and his team noticed an immediate dip in sales — a relatable story for businesses in the grips of COVID-19.

"There is a three day period where we went from having the best month in company history to the worst month in company history, over a 72 hour stretch," he remarks.

He soon called an emergency board meeting and rattled off worst-case "doomsday" scenarios, he says.

"Thankfully, we never had to do any of these strategies because, ultimately, the team was able to rally around the new positioning for the brand which was far more focused on alcohol-related health," he says.

"We found that a lot less people were getting hangovers during 2020, because generally when you binge drink, you tend to binge drink with other people," he explains.

He noticed that health became an important focus for people, some who began to drink less due to the lack of social gatherings. On the contrary, some consumers began to drink more to fill the idle time.

According to a JAMA Network report, there was a 54 percent increase in national sales of alcohol for the week stay-at-home orders began last March, as compared to the year prior.

"All of a sudden, you have all of these people who probably aren't binge drinking but they're just frequently consuming alcohol. Their drinks per week are shooting up, and they're worried about liver health," explains Powell.

Outside of day-after support, Cheers leaned into its long-term health products to help drinkers consume alcohol in a healthier way. Cheers Restore, a dissolvable powder consumers can mix into their water, rehydrates the body by optimizing sodium and glucose molecules.

For continued support, Cheers Protect is a daily supplement designed to increase glutathione — an antioxidant that plays a key role in liver detoxification — and support overall liver health. Cheers Protect, which was launched in 2019, became a focus for the company as they pivoted its brand strategy and marketing to accommodate consumer behavior.

"The Cheers brand is just trying to reflect the mission statement, which is bringing people together through promoting fun, responsible and health-conscious alcohol consumption," says Powell. "It fits with our vision statement, which is a world where everyone can enjoy alcohol throughout a long, healthy and happy lifetime,."

At the close of 2020, Cheers had generated $10.4 million in revenue and over $1.7m in profit — its first profitable year since launch.

During the brand's mission to stay afloat during the pandemic, the Cheers team was also laying the groundwork for its entry into the retail space. When Powell launched the company during his junior year at Princeton University, bringing Cheers to brick-and-mortar stores had always been a goal. He envisioned liquor and grocery stores where Cheers was sold next to alcohol as a complementary item. "It's like getting sunscreen before going to the beach, they kind of go hand in hand," he says.

"When we spoke with retailers, specifically bars and liquor stores, what we learned is that a lot of these places were hesitant to put pills near alcohol," he says. Wanting an attractive and accessible mode of alcohol-support, the Cheers team created the Cheers Restore beverage.

Utilizing the technology Cheers developed with Princeton University researchers, the Cheers Restore beverage incorporates the benefits of the pill in a liquid, sugar-free form. The company states that its in-vivo study found that the drink is up to 19 times more bioavailable than pure dihydromyricetin (DHM), a Japanese raisin tree extract found in Cheers products and other hangover-related cures.

"What we figured out is that if you combine DHM — our main ingredient — with something called capric acid, which is an extract from coconut oil, the bioavailability shoots way up," says Powell. He notes the unique taste profile and the "creaminess" capric acid provides. "Now you have this lightly carbonated, zero-sugar, lemon sherbert, essentially liver support, hangover beverage that tastes great in 12 ounces and can mix with alcohol," he explains.

The Cheers Restore beverage is already hitting the Houston-area, where its found a home on menus at Present Company. The company has also run promotions with Houston hangouts like Memorial Trail Ice House, Drift, and The Powder Keg.

Currently, the beverage is only available in retail capacity and cannot be ordered on the Cheers website. As Powell focuses on expanding Cheers Restore beverage presence in the region, he welcomes the idea of expanding nationally in the future to come. While eager customers await the drink's national availability, they can actively invest in Cheers through the company's recently-launched online public offering.

Though repivoting a company and launching a new product is exciting, the process did not come without its caveats and stressors. While Cheers profited as a business in 2020, the staff and its founder weren't immune to the struggles of COVID-19.

"I think 2020 was the first year that it really became real for me that Cheers is far more than just some sort of alcohol-related health brand and its products," says Powell. "Cheers is really its employees and everything that goes into being a successful, durable company that people essentially bet their careers on and their family's well-being on and so forth," he continues.

"It really does weigh on you in a different way that it's never weighed on you before," says Powell, describing the stress of the pandemic. The experience was "enlightening," he says, and he wants others to know it's not embarrassing to need help.

"There is no lack of great leaders out there that at long periods of their life they needed help in some way," he says. "For me that was 2020 and being in the grinder and feeling the stress of the unknown and all of that, but it could happen to anyone," he continues.

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