Michael Zeglinski, OptumRx: Hitting the Right Notes

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

Michael Zeglinski, senior vice president and CEO of specialty and infusion pharmacy at OptumRx, has applied the experiences he had playing the French horn in orchestras to his increasingly important roles in healthcare: “Being in an orchestra has its own dynamics — the conductor, being part of a team and doing your best to contribute to the whole. All of that applies to business.”

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

His passion was for music, specifically for the French horn, the curlicue brass instrument that is notoriously difficult to play. Being a pharmacist was strictly for paying the bills. While pursuing a master’s at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Michael Zeglinski squeezed in two days a week as a pharmacist. His master’s thesis was on the French horn parts in Gustav Mahler’s symphonies, and he studied with the principal horn player for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. There was an audition for the orchestra and gigs playing in the orchestra for the Pittsburgh Opera.

“But if you’re going to be a symphony-level musician and have that as your career, you need to have that je ne sais quoi, or that talent, that pushes you over the edge,” says Zeglinski. “I was kissing the pinnacle but never quite felt I was going to be able to stay there for 20 to 30 years.”

Zeglinski has reached a different sort of pinnacle — and stayed there — as a pharmacist and healthcare executive. The senior vice president and CEO of specialty and infusion pharmacy at OptumRx oversees a part of the business that accounts for roughly 10% of UnitedHealth Group’s revenues, and Zeglinski sits atop an organizational chart with roughly 6,000 employees.

His stab at a musical career has served him well, he says: “Being in an orchestra has its own dynamics — the conductor, being part of a team and doing your best to contribute to the whole. All of that applies to business.” Playing an instrument also instilled confidence, especially when it comes to public speaking. “There’s nothing scarier than being a soloist in an orchestra in front of 2,000 people. Everybody is listening to just you. Talking in front of people, that is a cake walk,” Zeglinski says with a laugh.

Zeglinski grew up outside of Pittsburgh in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, which is better known for producing football players (Joe Namath, Tony Dorsett) than musicians or healthcare executives. His father lost his job when the Pittsburgh steel mills closed, which may explain Zeglinski’s practical side and hedging a bet on a musical career. Armed with a pharmacy degree from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh that he earned before enrolling at Carnegie Mellon, Zeglinski says he tried nearly every aspect of pharmacy on before deciding on home infusion: “It was so complex. It wasn’t just pharmacy. It was business. It was nursing. It was dealing with payers and contracts.”

In one of his budding-career jobs at a small home infusion pharmacy business in western Pennsylvania, Zeglinski did all the hands-on work: compounding medications under a laminar flow hood, putting labels on IV bags, and medications into boxes. He says he was promoted into management partially because he was a serial volunteer: “If there was an opportunity to do something new, I’d volunteer. ‘Hey, we need somebody to work on this site project.’ Sure, I’ll do it. ‘Hey, we need somebody to travel over here and train these new pharmacies that we’re opening up.’ Sure, I’ll do it. Those types of things. I always just seized the opportunities as they came up.”

Zeglinski’s first full step into the executive career track was with Gentiva Health Services, a specialty pharmacy in Warrendale, Pennsylvania, outside of Pittsburgh. As with many people in healthcare, Zeglinski’s career path has been rerouted, then rerouted again, by acquisitions in a Russian nesting doll pattern. Gentiva’s pharmacy business was sold to Accredo, which was bought by Medco, which now part of Express Scripts, which was acquired by Cigna. He is at OptumRx because the company that hired him became Catamaran, which was acquired by Optum. In between, he had a stint of about 10 years with CVS Caremark, CVS Health’s PBM.

At Optum, Zeglinski’s career has gone back to his roots. “I worked in specialty pharmacy before it was even a word,” he says. “So as specialty developed, I moved out of infusion into specialty, and now I am back to where I am managing infusion, although there’s now an overlap. Before they were bifurcated.”

Zeglinksi wants to bring more self-service and digital tools to specialty and infusion pharmacy. “In specialty pharmacy we always said, ‘Oh we are high-touch specialty pharmacy, etc.,’ which means I know more than you, the patient. I’m here as the doctor, the pharmacist, and I’m going to tell you what you need to do,” he says. Self-service and digital services can help patients take care of themselves. “Why do they have to talk to me every month to get their prescription?” he asks. “If I were a patient, I would only want to get on the phone and talk to us when I wanted to, not the other way around. So how do we get there?” says Zeglinski.