First, full disclosure: I was a Senior Vice President at Blue Cross of California, or its parent company WellPoint from September 1997 through November 2005. While my precise responsibilities varied during those eight years, they centered around helping the company grow its Individual and Small Group business. Before joining and since leaving WellPoint, I’ve continued to work with Blue Cross while also having the pleasure of working with its competitors. I greatly respect those carriers, for many of the reasons I respect Blue Cross.
But it’s Blue Cross that has been in the news so much since I started this blog. Yet I’ve purposefully avoided posting on its situation and probably won’t post on it again. It’s too much of a no-win situation for me. If I’m too supportive, then I’m just being defensive. If I’m too harsh, I’m misusing my former insider status.
However, with the Department of Managed Care holding hearings on Blue Cross yesterday, and so many readers knowing of my affiliation with the company, I thought it permissible to make an exception. But this won’t be a post about the the substance of the charges. It’s more personal in nature.
I view the public pilloring of Blue Cross by the Department of Managed Health Care with mixed emotions. I enjoy seeing big companies brought to task as much as the next guy. It’s like watching toothpick thin famous-for-being-celebrity-types doing perp walks. Or watching bombastic politicians busted for the behavior they publicly decry. There’s a karmic aspect of it all that we humans seem to enjoy, the reasurrring balancing of forces in the universe.
So seeing a regulator take Blue Cross to task doesn’t bother me. It’s a part of the process. What prompts me to write, however, is how all this impacts the people of Blue Cross who have accomplished over the years.
The individuals representing the company at the hearing are friends and former colleagues of mine. I’ve seen them at work. Yes, it’s true they paid attention to the bottom line. That’s how any enterprise — for-profit or non-profit — stays in business. But I’ve also seen them striving to do the right thing for their members when no one outside the company was watching. I’ve seen them invest sweat, time and resources to improve customer service. I’ve seen how hard they’ve strived to create new ways of helping those with serious diseases improve their quality of life and medical outcomes. I’ve seen the efforts they’ve made — and the risks they’ve taken — to bring to market products which provide strong coverage at the lowest possible price in the face of skyrocketing health care costs.
Blue Cross is not a perfect company. There are no perfect companies — nor perfect people or government agencies, for that matter. They’ve made mistakes and where those mistakes violate law or regulations they should be appropriately punished. Further, Blue Cross has made their situation worse over the years by sporadically descending into moments of hubris and arrogance — and sometimes just plain public relations mindlessness. They’ve also taken risks to make things better, which means at times, they’ve failed and made things worse.
But Blue Cross of California is no Enron. There aren’t people there conspiring to rip off the innocent. It is a company by and large of people trying to do a good job for their members, their business partners and yes, their shareholders. (Traits they share with most of their competitors and respected companies everywhere).
Few things in life are clear cut. There’s a context and subtlety that gets overlooked in the circus-like atmosphere of a public scolding. Maybe every business and every industry needs to go through this now and again. When done right the results can be positive change. At worse, the hot water may help keep the enterprise humble. It’s just a shame that in the process, the people which make up the company and who are trying to do the right thing, can get scalded along the way.