Koleen Cavanaugh, Independence Blue Cross: Understanding Gained at the Entry Level Pays Off

MHE Publication, MHE July 2021, Volume 31, Issue 7

Koleen Cavanaugh, vice president of marketing at Independence Blue Cross in Philadelphia, says starting in customer service was the best thing for her career.

Climbing the Career Ladder: Second of 10 profiles of healthcare executives and their careers.

Koleen Cavanaugh grew up in Maryland but went to college at Villanova University, outside of Philadelphia. She fell for the city.

“I knew I wanted to stay here after I graduated, but the job market was not great at the time,” she says. Armed with a bachelor’s degree in communications with a minor in English, in 1991 she took a position in customer services at Independence Blue Cross (IBX), a Blues plan with an 80-year history in Philadelphia.

“I wouldn’t say I had a dream of necessarily being in healthcare. But what I really wanted to do is help people through communications and work with people to help them better understand products, services, etc.,” Cavanaugh explains. “Starting in customer service was the best thing for my career as it allowed me to completely understand the ins and outs of all of the products that we offer.”

That firsthand experience was instrumental as Cavanaugh rose through the ranks of the company. Thirty years later, she is vice president of marketing at IBX.

“When I started in marketing, I really understood what people understand and didn’t understand about the products and where we needed to be clearer in the way that we communicated certain benefits and services,” Cavanaugh says. “Others may have had a marketing background or had more experience from a marketing perspective, but they didn’t understand how the products really worked like I did.”

She learned negotiation skills, how to work closely with a sales team and how to deal with external vendors. “Understanding how to manage a vendor relationship was extremely pivotal as my career grew and important for me to ultimately negotiate contracts,” Cavanaugh says. “That groundwork helped when I was promoted to manage the department.”

In her current role, Cavanaugh leads different marketing teams, including a client broker team focused on the life cycle of customers who purchase coverage for their employees. There are also teams that focus on the member side of things and corporate marketing. “We also have a very robust engine driving digital engagement with our members, and two-thirds of our subscribers have opted in to receiving digital messaging from us,” Cavanaugh says.

Cavanaugh says one of things she’s proudest of her in her career is the approach that IBX took to the ACA. “We as an organization decided we were going to fully embrace the ACA and saw it as a huge opportunity for us to really live up to our social mission,” she says.

IBX set up mobile education and enrollment centers. “We were out in festivals and fairs and block parties, so we created awareness anywhere we could,” Cavanaugh says. The insurer also used a variety of direct mail and social media strategies. It paid off. During the first enrollment period, 90% of consumers who purchased a product on the ACA exchange for southeastern Pennsylvania bought an IBX product.

There’s still a lot that Cavanaugh hopes to accomplish with the company. A big part of her focus this year has been on equity in healthcare and in the delivery of healthcare. She also is examining how IBX can leverage what it does as a health insurer to ensure that it’s bringing health equity to all its members and the communities it serves.

“We’re really focusing on the whole-person health, not just the medical side, but also the mental health and behavioral health side of things,” she says. “We’re looking at how we can continue to improve access for members and on education.”

Having been at IBX for her entire career, Cavanaugh obviously knows what it takes to be successful. “My advice for people coming up in this business is just to always stay positive,” Cavanaugh says. “No matter what level of an organization that you reach, I think it’s always important to stay inquisitive to understand how things work and the impact that you’re having on your customers.”