Deciphering diversity: Empire leader Mark Wagar studies melting pot of member-engagement opportunities

June 1, 2007

Every morning, Mark Wagar, president of Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield, walks more than a mile through Manhattan to his office on 42nd Street. It's a city of great diversity and that fact that isn't lost on him, especially considering that one in four New Yorkers is an Empire member.

Wagar's plan insures one out of every four people in the Empire state, and he sees their faces and hears their voices on his daily walk to and from work. It's a diverse membership-a fact that isn't lost on him.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), comparative health measures of White, African American and Hispanic populations show that non-White populations experience less care and weaker outcomes. For example in New York, the average annual infant mortality rate per 1,000 live births is 6.0. However, the rate is 4.9 for White New Yorkers compared with 5.6 for Hispanics and 10.9 for African Americans.

"It's time that we look at all these different ethnic groups in this country as tremendous opportunities and not live with the preconceived notions that are generated by the entertainment media," Wagar says. "These are all viable, healthy, growing segments of the population. The only way we're going to make healthcare affordable for everyone in this county is by helping everyone to alter their health status over time."

For any plan, executing strategies to better relate to diverse populations and engage them in their health potential might seem like a feel-good, politically correct stunt or an obligation as a corporate citizen, but increasingly, the business case for acting on diversity is taking precedence. According to the Agency for Healthcare Research & Quality, ethnic minorities are increasingly represented in Medicare and Medicaid programs. In New York, ethnic minorities account for more than 37% of the population, according to KFF.

And it is possible to reduce the number of episodes through prevention. Obviously, the members themselves need to learn about and have an opportunity to adopt those prevention activities. That's where a health plan's diversity strategy can make a difference. "I'm not winning if I wait for you to get sick," Wagar says.