Former journalist Ceci Connolly, president and CEO of the Alliance of Community Health Plans, is making positive news in healthcare.
There was a time when Ceci Connolly was reporting for The Washington Post, covering national news and breaking stories on politics, natural disasters, and issues that impacted the healthcare landscape. She also contributed to Landmark: America’s New Health-Care Law and What It Means for Us All, a book penned by Post staff writers.
“I was a political journalist for much of my career and covered presidential and gubernatorial campaigns and Congress, and it was after the 2000 campaign that I was fried from 18 months on the road,” Connolly says. “I was incredibly fortunate to go to the Harvard Kennedy School and met a lot of smart, neat people in healthcare and got excited about it, and caught the healthcare bug.”
After 25 years as a journalist, Connolly traded in her pencil and notebook to work as a senior adviser at the McKinsey Center for Health System Reform, then went on to become managing director at international consulting firm PwC’s Health Research Institute.
“In late 2010, the journalism world was not in great shape, and I had a really great 25-year run and loved every minute but knew if I was going to do something different, this was probably the time,” she says. “I had this opportunity to go to McKinsey and help them ramp up their Center for Health Reform, and it’s been an interesting and fun second career.”
In 2016, she was named president and CEO of the Alliance of Community Health Plans (ACHP), the trade association for high-quality, nonprofit, community health plans, working with some of the most innovative executives in the health sector to provide evidence-based, affordable care.
“What attracted me to it was after my years of writing about healthcare and getting exposed to every facet of the healthcare sector, I came to believe very strongly in the model captured by our members and what we represent-the integrated payer/provider partnership,” Connolly says. “Especially nonprofits in the community. I feel that the data is pretty compelling that integrated or a partnership model gets us to a much better set of incentives around doing what’s right for the patient and doing it in an efficient, high-quality manner.”
To have a day job that tracks with what she believes in is truly a gift, she says.
On the job
ACHP focuses on three core intersecting activities: advocacy at the federal level in Washington, D.C.; clinical innovation where research is tied to its unique model, as well as shared learning, providing opportunities for high-caliber member companies to come together and share innovative strategies and best practices; and market competitiveness.
“That is a group that does a lot of data analytics and benchmarking for our members, to look at quality performance, for instance, or pharmacy spending among the membership and help them stay competitive in the market,” Connolly says. “I make certain that those three are harmonized and that the whole is greater than the parts. All of these intersect because any one category helps strengthen and fuel the other activities.”
Connolly’s responsibilities also include spending a great deal of time with members, getting out of D.C., and interacting with what she considers “the cream of the crop” in the health industry to hear about what’s exciting and new in their world.
“I do spend a good amount of time with them-they cover 34 states and the District of Columbia,” she says. “A little of it is also proselytizing, whether it’s talking to reporters or making visits to Capitol Hill, it’s about communicating what we consider to be a much better vision for the future of healthcare.”
When it comes to clinical innovation, ACHP is very deep into work around social determinants of health and how nonprofit community health plans can approach that issue.
“It’s not that it’s a new issue for most of our members, but with all of the renewed interest, we have a policy initiative to build out a policy agenda,” Connolly says. “There are a lot of questions in society about rules and responsibilities around social determinants of health, and I don’t think we want health plans to take over housing, but we can certainly be hubs and supporters in communities and forge partnerships and connect people in need with services.”
A good deal of that takes place in ACHP’s clinical innovation department.
The organization also has a very active pharmacy director group and Connolly notes they are constantly grappling with rising drug costs and how to manage that.
“They are also seeing headed in their direction, all of these potential therapies that have high price tags and thinking through how they are going to navigate that,” she says. “I have an incredible team and I love being surrounded by smart, passionate people who are very committed.”
With a divided Congress, Washington, D.C., is often a polarizing environment with lots of gridlock, so Connolly tries her best to work with both parties and take them very concrete, proven, real-world approaches.
“We are not an academic organization, but we think what we have to offer are great insights and experience from our member companies in any number of challenging circumstances today,” she says. “If you think about telehealth, for years we wanted to include that in Medicare Advantage. There was skepticism on the part of policy makers that it would add costs, and that’s if patients even used it.”
What ACHP was able to do was take some of its members on the leading edge of that technology and collect their data and stories of early adaptors and bring it to D.C. policy makers to show real-world examples on how doctors and patients are using the technology.
“That’s the way we try to approach all of our advocacy work, by bringing them true, on-the-ground examples of what works and how it works,” Connolly says.
One of the biggest challenges, she shares, is navigating uncertainty and unpredictability.
“You never know what’s going to be on the morning’s front page. There might be a proposed merger or an acquisition,” she says. “Following that is the very important imperative around managing healthcare costs and delivering real value for healthcare dollars. I’m quite passionate about that. I view it as both a moral imperative and business imperative and believe the industry must be willing to lead in that area, not just point fingers or wait for regulators to solve the problem.”
Away from the office
When not working, she and her husband are self-proclaimed “foodies,” though Connolly is often relegated as the garlic chopper while he cooks.
“I also enjoy a bit of golf. I’m not so great, but it’s good for me to get away from the computer and be out walking,” she says. “I like travel, reading some good novels, and decompress when I can.”
Connolly is also a founding member of Women of Impact, and she credits her friend Joanne Conroy, a physician who leads the Dartmouth Health System, whose vision it was to bring together a group of accomplished women leaders in healthcare who care very much about individual legacy and collective impact, and leaving behind a collective imprint that’s larger than any one individual.
“It has been just an incredible privilege to be a part of that group and I derive great support, energy, inspiration, and friendship from them,” she says. “We work in groups doing things such as mentoring other female executives, and right now we are very engaged in making sure women are on boards of directors in the C-suite, and speaking at major conferences.”
Over her two careers, Connolly considers herself so grateful to have had so many “cool opportunities” throughout her lifetime-first getting a front-row seat at history during her years in journalism, and now working with organizations that she really believes in.
Looking ahead, ACHP is interested in identifying the next generation of policy leaders who want to take the healthcare system to the next level-specifically a system that delivers value.
“We are not there yet by any means,” Connolly says. “The country has made strides in terms of access, but that value equation, we as a nation, are behind. We are looking for the partners in government, in industry and among patient advocacy groups who really want to do the work that is going to start paying for value and outcomes in our future healthcare system.”
When it is, that’s a headline she would love to see on the front page.
Keith Loria is an award-winning journalist who has been writing for major newspapers and magazines for close to 20 years.