One in a series of interviews with Modern Healthcare's Top 25 Women in Healthcare for 2015.
Kaiser Permanente’s success in Colorado when the federal insurance exchange launched in January 2014 was a perfect example for Donna Lynne and her team of the new type of leadership needed under reform.
Lynne, president of Kaiser’s Colorado health plan and the EVP who leads its Pacific Northwest and Hawaii regions, said Kaiser was anticipating perhaps 3 percent growth when the new era began. Instead, Kaiser’s membership in the state grew a whopping 14 percent overnight.
“We recognized that we were beginning to have a situation that required extraordinary measures,” she says. “As a leader, you need to be nimble and you need to be confident that the people who are working for you can execute.”
Lynne’s leaders put together rapid-response teams to tackle needs like customer service, ID cards, appointment-setting and billing. “These were people who had not had healthcare before,” reasons Lynne, “and if their first experience with a health plan was not a great one, then we ran the risk of them making a different decision a year later.”
The approach was successful, says Lynne, and helped her team develop new skills.
“The primary characteristic of what people need to be able to manage in healthcare reform is volatility,” she says. “You need to be able to deal with ambiguity but you also need to have the skill set to be able to manage in a crisis environment.”
Crisis is nothing new to Lynne. She began her career more than 30 years ago working for the New York City government at a time when the city was bordering on bankruptcy. But she witnessed a remarkable thing. Leaders from government, business and labor unions set aside their own agendas and worked together to bring the city back from the brink.
“Everybody had to give a little to rescue the city from a crisis situation, and that taught me a lot,” she says. “You realize very quickly how interdependent you are on other people.”
Ultimately, Lynne spent 20 years working for New York City. She’s fiercely proud of that time in public service. “Sometimes people poke fingers at people who work in government, but I felt very committed to excellence in government. I wanted to make a difference on behalf of the millions of people served by New York City,” she says.
She was renowned as a labor negotiator, and that led to the next step in her career as she began to see from her dealings with unions that healthcare was as important as wages and pensions to the middle class.
“I felt very committed that, if I could do anything to make healthcare affordable, it would be a great pursuit,” Lynne says. She worked in operations for a health system before moving to managed care and rising to CEO of Group Health. Then she joined Kaiser Permanente.
The move to Colorado enabled Lynne to turbo-charge her already active lifestyle. She began climbing mountains and has tackled major peaks in Colorado and overseas. She’s also a skier who has done marathon ski events for charity.
“I think I like on-off switches, if you understand what I mean. I completely turn the work button off; I have to, because most of my pursuits involve risks so I need to concentrate,” she says.
Lynne grew up playing every sport under the sun – softball, field hockey, volleyball and tennis – and says sports were a natural training ground for leadership development.
“I felt very strongly that there were a lot of things that women either were told they couldn’t do or weren’t supported in doing. And I liked being a pioneer or even a little bit of a rebel,” she says. “By participating in sports, I understood the interdependence of all the positions on the field. In the business world or in government, you can work in your own silo and become an expert, or you can drive for change and try to get things done together.”
Lynne has chosen the latter, and says what some would call a matrix structure at Kaiser has served her well, helping her to focus more on the human side of leadership.
“I think some of it came with maturity,” she says. “Taking the time to engage and influence people is a critical part of leadership that I had to learn over a period of time, and Kaiser is in many ways the crown jewel in terms of a place where that really works.”
She’s also learned, she says, “to appreciate the importance of developing the leaders underneath you.” Kaiser has annual individual development plans for its executives, and that’s helped Lynne to “develop my leaders, who are now stronger and allow me to step back and do different kinds of things than I might have thought about when I came here 10 years ago.”
Leadership innovation is sorely needed, she says, as reimbursement models have caused upheaval in the industry.
“We’re all seeing less revenue because so many more of our members are coming from Medicare or Medicaid,” Lynne notes. “That’s creating tremendous pressure on us to reinvent the way that we do things.”
The turmoil has been felt among both providers and payers. Lynne says no one is sure how it all will play out, but both finance and delivery need to get along.
“I think the best way that payers and providers can work together is to acknowledge that, while we may have started out with different interests, we are ultimately trying to provide care to as many people as we can so that they’re healthy.”