Highmark's new CEO making the rounds

Less than two weeks into his tenure as president and CEO of Pittsburgh insurer Highmark Inc., David Holmberg has set a pace that could wear down a presidential candidate during election week.

He had a conversation with Gov. Tom Corbett in Pittsburgh on May 21 and met with key legislators and state insurance department officials in Harrisburg this week. He spoke with Mayor Bill Peduto on Wednesday and with Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald on Thursday morning.

But Mr. Holmberg also met with some of the first responders and Forbes Hospital clinical staff who treated victims of the April 9 knife attack at Franklin Regional High School in Murrysville.

The Franklin Regional episode struck a particular chord. This, he said, is what health care in Western Pennsylvania should be about: a well-organized, collaborative response by medical professionals of all ranks and affiliations working together to address the community's need.

"Three kids were in an ambulance and headed to Forbes before the first helicopter arrived," said Mr. Holmberg, 55.

The cooperation between the staffs at the UPMC East hospital and Highmark's Allegheny Health Network that day very well may have saved lives, he believes. And he wants nothing less than to see a similar joint effort between the competing health systems to improve access and quality of medical care regionwide.

Mr. Holmberg has yet to reach out to Jeffrey Romoff, UPMC president and CEO, he said in an interview Thursday, but insists that "it's the right thing for the two organizations to work together."

The reality, he recognizes, is more complicated.

UPMC, the region's largest health care provider, says it will not extend the contract that provides in-network access for Highmark subscribers to its doctors and facilities past Dec. 31. Continuing the relationship "would decimate UPMC as we know it today," UPMC's chief financial officer, Robert DeMichiei, said earlier this year. The health care system's officials believe a contract would allow Highmark to advertise access to UPMC while steering patients to AHN hospitals.

Mr. Holmberg's perspective is that consumers should have a choice and, he added, that's not only Highmark's thinking. "There are national trends shaping things. I think five years from now health care will be delivered in a different way," he said.

He sees a clear advantage to building a provider network during a time of dramatic change, a piece of timing that allows Highmark to shape its network to suit the changing landscape and changing consumer needs.

"One of the things that attracted me to Highmark in the first place is that we have the ability to think in five- and 10-year cycles, and we take that responsibility seriously," he said.

Mr. Holmberg has been with Highmark for seven years, most recently as head of its diversified businesses division that includes Visionworks and United Concordia dental insurance plans. Based in San Antonio -- headquarters to the Visionworks eyewear unit -- he said he traveled to Pittsburgh corporate headquarters every other week for strategy discussions, including those involving the contract with UPMC.

"I had a seat at the table, but I didn't have some of the emotions around some of the issues, so I've had a different perspective on this," he said.

He does not have much time to translate that perspective into action.

On Monday, Highmark will release its consolidated financial results -- "Essentially, we're very comfortable with the position we're in," he said -- and by July 31 the insurance giant must submit its post-UPMC contract transition plan to state regulators.

While Mr. Holmberg strongly believes that a continued UPMC-Highmark contract is in the community's best interests, he declined to speculate on the odds of that happening.

He does not expect the road ahead to be easy and allows that there will be difficult decisions.

Why Highmark’s ex-CEO was not a perfect fit?

Steve Twedt: stwedt@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1963.

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