November 11, 2010 / 3:32 PM / 9 years ago

New Aetna CEO brings style shift to insurer

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Aetna Inc AET.N President Mark Bertolini, who becomes CEO later this month, has half the kidneys and twice the energy of an ordinary human being and is set to take on the Herculean task of trying to change the health insurance industry’s villainous image.

Mark Bertolini, President of Aetna, speaks at the Reuters Health Summit in New York, November 10, 2010. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

He also claims to possess unusual retention skills and to have figured out the mind-boggling science-fiction film “The Matrix” in the first five minutes.

While Bertolini, 54, and outgoing Chief Executive Ron Williams, who turns 61 on Thursday, have worked closely for years and are on the same page strategically as Aetna faces implementation of the new U.S. healthcare law, their vastly different personalities would suggest a significant style shift is coming in the executive suite in Hartford.

Williams, one of the nation’s highest-profile CEOs, is dignified, reserved, almost always on message, and seems highly unlikely to discuss his personal life in a public forum.

Bertolini by contrast is casual, conversational and quick to use a personal anecdote to make a point.

“You noticed,” he quipped with a touch of sarcasm when the style differences were mentioned.

In a wide-ranging interview at the Reuters Health Summit in New York on Wednesday reporters learned, among other things, that Bertolini had donated a kidney to his son, takes medicine to keep his blood pressure low and has a golden retriever that “runs the house.”

“My personal style of management is I’m involved,” Bertolini said. “I spend a lot of time understanding details. I have a photographic memory, so people that work with me understand that what I see I retain in incredible volumes.

“I’m a hands-on person that spends a lot of time with my team and a lot of time with my work. I really love the work I do. I am passionate about making it better,” he said.

Bertolini sees one objective as boosting morale at Aetna after the insurance industry has been the favorite whipping boy in the heated debate around healthcare reform, accused of denying or dropping coverage for those most in need.

“At a time like this when it’s very dark for people in our industry, our employees look at me and say ‘are you the same person they’re talking about on TV today as the immoral villain and do we really do the bad things everybody says we do as a company?’” Bertolini said.

“They need to understand that there is light at the end of all of this,” he added.

“This is a tough time. Would I have picked being the CEO and a chairman of a company like this at this point in history? No! Who would want it?” he says with an easy chuckle.

CONSUMER, OR PATIENT

Bertolini divides people who use the healthcare system into consumers and patients, again reaching for the personal to illustrate the broader difference.

“When I broke my neck in a skiing accident six years ago I was not a consumer. I blew through my high deductible and my out-of-pocket expenses on the helicopter ride when they Medevaced me to the hospital,” he said.

“I was not making good consumer decisions. I was a patient and I needed all the resources of doctors and nurses to help me get back on my feet again,” recalled Bertolini, who has limited use of his left arm since sustaining that spinal cord injury.

“The use of those services we’ve figured out, so when you get really, really sick we want to be able to point you to the right places to get well again,” he said.

He likened the typical healthcare consumer to someone blindly filling a shopping cart with items for which they have no idea of the prices and won’t see a bill for 30 days, and argued for the need to use available technology to provide the transparency that allows for more informed decisions.

“In San Francisco a routine colonoscopy costs anywhere from $1,250 to $7,300 in the same market. I don’t know what you get with the $7,300 routine colonoscopy but it’s got to be good,” he said.

He talks about using a smart phone to track his mail order toothpaste from the point of origin all the way to the side entrance of his house, where he and the dog could “open it,” and seemed incredulous that the medical system is so far behind the shipping industry in using new information technology.

“About 30 percent of what we spend (on healthcare) today is wasted,” he said.

But even with all of the difficulties of changing a highly complex business, Bertolini appears optimistic and ready.

“It’s a huge opportunity and I’m the right person to give the level of energy and level of personal involvement and the conviction to make it a better business,” he said.

“I can’t help but think that this is going to turn out good, and when I hand over the baton some time in the future I hope that I have done a good job in getting the company to a place where it will be a lot easier for the next person.”

Reporting by Bill Berkrot and Lewis Krauskopf; Editing by Michele Gershberg and Matthew Lewis

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