Who is the new Obamacare CEO?

Last week, Kevin Counihan was appointed the new -and first- Chief Executive Officer of healthcare.gov by Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell. Counihan was previously the head of Access Health CT, Connecticut’s health insurance marketplace. Counihan made Access Health CT one of the leading state-administered health exchanges, enrolling more than 250,000 people -about 50% of which were not insured before-, helping the state to become the first to surpass the goal for Affordable Care Act enrollees and cutting the state’s uninsured rate in half while he was at it. As Marketplace CEO -a post that includes leading the federal Marketplace, managing relationships with state marketplaces, and running the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight, and reports to CMS Administrator Marilyn Tavenner- the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services hope he will be able to do the same for Obamacare after a less-than-stellar first year. If he can manage to turn the Average Joes at the Marketplace into a force to be reckoned with, they might even start calling him Patches O’Counihan.

Counihan called what he achieved in Connecticut showing “that government can work.” He generously shares the credit for his successful run there with the executives he recruited in insurance capital Hartford. In that case, though, Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy deserves some of the credit as well for handpicking Counihan. Not that it was a difficult choice; Counihan had cut his teeth as a senior executive in business, marketing, operations, product development and strategic planning for health care organizations for more than 30 years. Malloy jokingly said in a news conference that Counihan should have his head examined for agreeing to go to Washington. The Governor would no doubt prefer to keep Counihan in Connecticut and who could blame him? But like Mr. Smith before him, Counihan couldn’t resist the call of the capital. “When I arrived at the Department, I committed to retain, develop and recruit the best talent available, and that’s what we are doing,” Burwell said of Counihan’s appointment. “I’m particularly pleased to welcome Kevin Counihan to the new Marketplace CEO role.  He brings additional operational and technological expertise to the position and will be a clear, single point of contact for streamlined decision-making.”

President Obama himself had taken notice of Counihan about a year ago during a conference call with of state-based exchanges leaders, during which the latter impressed the former when mentioned having promoted insurance at Lil Wayne shows. In addition to Connecticut, Counihan has an impressive track record in both private and public health sectors, including Tufts Health Plan, Cigna, a private insurance exchange in California, and Massachusetts’ successful health exchange in 2006. Moreover, he is confident that he can parlay his past successes into a fruitful tenure in the big league. “People understand intuitively that having people uninsured is not right for them or right for the country,” he explained. “Now, how we go about doing it -- people can debate and there can be solid policy differences.  But I'm fundamentally very optimistic that, even though there are some big ideological schisms, that those can be bridged.”

The second year of Obamacare enrollment will begin in a little more than two months, and Counihan has several challenges ahead of him, which according to Forbes.com include successfully competing healthcare.gov’s revamp, coordinating with states that run their own marketplace, ensuring the law’s insurance reforms are working, and being the face of the healthcare exchanges. Counihan certainly has his work cut out for him. Connecticut is a democratic legislature that welcome Obamacare with arms wide open; now Counihan will have to deal with states that are not so accepting of the law, as well as others that are downright hostile to it, such as in the Deep South. Furthermore, even though Connecticut finished 7th overall in marketplace enrollment as a share of the potential enrollees, and set an example for other states to follow -Maryland actually bought Connecticut’s software-, Counihan was not without detractors who point out that 1,000 Access Health customers lost their insurance coverage due to a programming glitch, or that that the exchange needed better internal controls. Be that as it may, absolutely no one can say that, when it comes to running healthcare.gov, it’s better the devil you know, because there was no one there in the first place.


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