A year after taking over as the top executive of Health Care Service Corporation (HCSC), President and CEO Maurice Smith joined Crain’s Chicago Business to talk about navigating a historically tumultuous time — and to share lessons learned about how the pandemic may shape the future of health insurance.
HCSC, which has its headquarters in Chicago, operates health plans in Illinois, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas, with more than 24,000 employees and 17 million members.
Crain’s reporter Stephanie Goldberg interviewed Smith in a June 24 webcast as part of Crain’s Healthcare Forum series. She began by asking what it was like to assume the CEO role on June 1, 2020, during the heart of the pandemic.
“The greatest challenge was all the uncertainty, and the sadness,” he said. “People were losing their lives, individuals were scared, companies were uncertain about their own survival.” HCSC confronted these challenges by keeping members, customers, communities and network health care providers at the center of each decision, he said.
“We’re a company about providing high-quality access to care, and we kept that as our North Star, all the way through,” he said. “There was a team of over 24,000 people making decisions every day in terms of how to best support our stakeholders.”
“We’re a company about providing high-quality access to care, and we kept that as our North Star, all the way through."
The company’s actions included lifting cost-sharing for telehealth visits and COVID-19 testing and treatment, distributing grants to organizations helping people on the ground through its COVID-19 Community Collaboration Fund and providing premium credits to fully insured employer customers.
Smith also described how the pandemic tested HCSC itself as the company quickly enabled most of its employees to work remotely. The experience proved the organization and its culture are resilient, he said, but also reinforced the value of opportunities to work together in person.
“We know that we are stronger when we’re able to collaborate, and collaborating oftentimes means being co-located — not absolutely, but many times,” Smith said. “So for us, it’s really finding the right balance.”
Goldberg later asked if HCSC is under pressure to pursue mergers and acquisitions to keep pace with other large health insurance companies.
Smith answered by contrasting HCSC’s purpose with its investor-owned peers. “At HCSC we are a private company — a customer-owned company — and we think about our compact very differently,” he said. “I don't know that our models are going to look the same.”
Smith pointed out that HCSC is a large company with a diverse set of capabilities, including technology solutions, integrated pharmacy benefit management and participation in employer-sponsored health plans, the retail markets, Medicaid managed care and Medicare Advantage.
“The pressure I feel is, are we being responsive to our stakeholders? Are we clear about who they are and are we being responsive to them,” he said. The company, he added, “is willing to take chances in places where it makes sense for this compact around access to health care.”
In his previous role as president of the company’s Illinois health plan, Smith led an effort to open community centers in certain neighborhoods as part of a broader strategy to help members and non-members alike gain better access to information and resources to improve the health of the whole community.
“It’s really saying … how can we help others access the overall health ecosystem better in a way that is durable and meaningful to them,” Smith said. “I think an overall healthy society's good for everyone,” he added, “so we like to participate in ways that we can be a force multiplier.”
Smith highlighted a project completed last year that combines a public-facing neighborhood center with a general HCSC service center in Chicago’s Morgan Park community. The facility will bring up to 550 jobs to the area, and HCSC has hired many residents of the surrounding neighborhoods to fill them.
That project, he said, is one way the company is making an economic impact in a community while also providing access to health resources for the people who live there and high-value services for the company’s members and customers.
“It was saying, these are some efforts that we had to undertake anyway — how can we look at those efforts and then build stronger, better, healthier communities.”