Millions rush to join a wild new health plan from Jack Ma's Ant Financial

A quick response (QR) code is displayed on an advertisement for Ant Financial Services Group's Alipay. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Billionaire Jack Ma's Ant Financial has done more than perhaps any company to disrupt China's gargantuan banking and asset-management industries. Now it's trying to re-imagine health insurance.

Ant's Xiang Hu Bao, which means mutual protection, has attracted 50 million people since its October inception, or more than five times the population of New York City.

The product operates somewhat like a collective, in which members contribute evenly to payouts of as much as 300,000 yuan (S$60,480) when a participant falls critically ill. It's free to sign up, there are no premiums or upfront payments, and disputes about claims are adjudicated by volunteer members, according to a statement from the company on Thursday. In return for managing the process, Ant will take an 8 per cent administrative fee out of every payout.

Ant, best known for the Paypal-like Alipay service that underpins Alibaba Group Holding's online shopping platform, is re-designing financial products from money market funds to consumer credit that have long been dominated by state-owned Chinese behemoths. The company's foray into health care comes at a time when the country is grappling with a rapidly aging population, one of the more pressing long-term threats to the world's second-largest economy.

Ant said on Thursday (April 110 it hopes to sign up 300 million Xiang Hu Bao users within two years, which would represent more than 20 per cent of China's population.

"Ant can reach out to millions of users at a pace that traditional insurers can't," said Steven Lam, a Hong Kong-based analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. "This was the actual insurance model hundreds of years ago. They're going back to the basics."

Ma's company joins a raft of start-ups angling to disrupt old-school health insurance in China, including Tencent Holdings Ltd. and Sinovation Ventures-backed Waterdrop. Beijing-based Waterdrop crowdfunds from 78 million users and paid out more than 95 million yuan to members in the four or so months ended October, according to its website.

The products may help fill a yawning gap in medical protection for the world's biggest population as its rate of critical illnesses soars, partly due to more expert diagnoses. As of April, almost a third of Xiang Hu Bao's members hailed from poorer rural areas, while nearly half were migrant laborers.

Ant says Xiang Hu Bao isn't an insurance product and thus isn't subject to the same regulatory oversight governing traditional industry players like Ping An Insurance Group Co.

Anyone between the age of 30 days and 59 years can join, provided they meet basic health criteria. As more people participate, the costs of the plan are spread more widely. Given the growing user base, every member should pay no more than 0.1 yuan for every critically ill person, according to Ant. It covers a list of no more than 100 ailments. If a dispute over claims arises, a jury consisting of hundreds of thousands of pre-approved users will vote on whether to pay out compensation.

Ant plans to leapfrog early adopters of the model by tapping the hundreds of millions of people that use its Alipay and money-market fund operator Yu'E Bao. Payments are deducted from users' Alipay account on the 14th and 28th of every month, and anyone with a decent credit score can join.

To combat fraud, Ant is using the same blockchain technology that underpins digital currencies like Bitcoin, which rely on common verification by members. Members who fall critically ill within 90 days of joining the plan will not be compensated.

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