Dr. Patrick Conway, the new CEO of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, is bringing a healing touch to the state’s largest insurer.
For one, he is a pediatrician who still practices on weekends despite his demanding weekday job. It’s encouraging to see a giant health care insurer led by someone who actually delivers health care and knows the frustrations of denied claims and the extensive paperwork that comes with appeals. Indeed, Conway is the only doctor leading a health plan the size of Blue Cross and Blue Shield, which serves 3 million North Carolinians.
“Being a physician, it helps me to see health care in a more personal way,” he said during a recent interview at The News & Observer.
Attention to people is a sensitive issue for the insurance company. It felt the fury of customers last year after a computer system conversion failed and chaos followed. Thousands of customers were placed in the wrong plan. Many couldn’t get confirmation of coverage. Checking accounts were drafted in error. Nearly 3,500 customers lodged complaints with the state Department of Insurance, prompting an agency investigation that led to Blue Cross being fined $3.6 million for chronic malfunctions. Blue Cross also paid $11.3 million in restitution to customers and $8.3 million in interest to providers whose payments were delayed.
Conway, 43, comes to the job from the federal government, where he worked with health care systems much larger than those at Blue Cross. At the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, he was deputy administrator for Innovation and Quality, and director of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation. After the computer calamity, Conway’s experience with improving massive systems must have appealed to Blue Cross’ board.
Conway said he will foster “a relentless focus on customer service,” but he’s hoping to do more than make systems work efficiently.
“I believe we can be a model Blue health plan for the country and what I mean by that is truly delivering on better care, better health outcomes, lower costs for the consumer and a best-in-class customer experience,” said.
Conway will have a chance to show how committed he is to those goals when Blue Cross weighs in on the proposed merger between the state’s two largest health care providers, UNC Health Care and Charlotte-based Carolina HealthCare Systems. The two systems say they can lower costs through economies of scale, but that hasn’t been the result with other mergers. Blue Cross is taking a close look at how the merger will affect costs.
“The question can we have an arrangement with them that clearly lowers cost and then we’ll pass those savings on to our customers in terms of lower premiums,” he said.
That’s refreshing talk from a CEO and marks a promising start for Conway’s search for ways to slow the relentless rise in health care costs.