November 2020, Volume XXXIV, Number 8

100 Most Influential
Health Care Leaders

In preparing this feature we asked each of the nominated health care leaders to answer the two questions listed below. Their responses provide a unique and kaleidoscopic overview of health care in 2020.

  1. What are the biggest challenges facing health care delivery today?
  2. How is your organizations preparing to meet these challenges?

Jakub Tolar, MD, PhD

Dean | University of Minnesota Medical School

Challenges: Health care faces the same challenges that our society does in recovering economically from COVID-19: jobs lost, many people uninsured. During the pandemic, many people stayed home and put off important preventative care. This puts our most vulnerable populations—the elderly, the underserved, those with chronic health issues—in a very difficult place.

Strategies: In academic medicine, we combine scientific research with clinical care to help identify and solve the problems we see in our medical practice, in our community, in our health care systems, and in the kinds of treatments needed to help people. This has allowed us to improve care and outcomes in COVID-19. Our role is to move medical care forward and train the next generation of caregivers.

Mark Traynor, JD, MA

President and CEO | UCare

Challenges: The biggest challenge is ensuring that individuals and families living at or near poverty, particularly from communities of color, are able to access care and supportive services. COVID-19 and economic disruption have exacerbated inequities and gaps while impacting the financial resources of providers, social service organizations, and government partners when they are most needed.

Strategies: We invest in programs and collaborations with providers, social service organizations, and government partners to clear the path for our members to access needed care and supportive services. For our members on Medicare and our MNsure plans, we also have provided premium discounts and waived copays for primary care and mental health services.

Christopher S. Vara, MD

Pediatric Orthopaedic Surgeon | Shriners Children’s Twin Cities

Challenges: Like any business, health care must balance quality and finances. Health care is extremely complicated for patients to navigate, including factors such gaining access to a provider, locating a specialty, coordinating care between providers, and understanding clinical and financial responsibilities.

Strategies: Our wrap-around service provides patients access to orthopedic specialty providers, ancillary services, and care management in a single location to remove barriers in the advancement of their care. We have taken further steps to simplify the patient experience via telehealth in our new outpatient location, which is available throughout our six-state service area. We provide high quality of care to children without regard to the ability of a patient or family to pay.

Andrea Walsh, JD

President and CEO | HealthPartners

Challenges: Our culture statement begins: “We became clinicians to put patients at the center.” This year has been both a test and a demonstration of that. Complexity and expense, caused by regulation, payment models, technology, and the “way we do things” often stand in the way of the system we envision.

Strategies: Our clinicians responded to this challenging year with skill, teamwork, compassion, and a commitment to making things simpler and more affordable. Innovations in telemedicine, drive-up testing, mobile check-in, and rapid adoption of safety protocols are just a few examples. I believe we’ll remember 2020 as both a reminder of what we’re capable of and an inspiration to accelerate transformations leading to more convenience, affordability, and alignment with what people need, prefer and deserve.

Jonathan Watson, MPIA

CEO | Minnesota Association of Community Health Centers

Challenges: The Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare the issues facing health care delivery. For Community Health Centers they are the social drivers of health that our patients experience daily. Food scarcity, unstable housing, and deep poverty are a few of the socio-economic challenges Health Center patients experience. Moreover, the lack of stable funding for Health Centers prohibits long-term investments in programming and a workforce from addressing these social drivers of health.

Strategies: At MNACHC, we are continually advancing public policies to align delivery and payment systems that incent robust preventive care and recognition of Health Center efforts to address our patient’s health and non-health needs. Also, MNACHC supports our members with staff resilience tools and workforce recruitment plans.

Penny Wheeler, MD

CEO | Allina Healthh

Challenges: roviding care during the pandemic, coupled with caring for non-COVID care needs, while supporting our teams who are doing so much for our patients and our employees. The pandemic uncovered the depth of disparities in health care, while also presenting us with an opportunity to work together to eliminate those disparities

Strategies: Balancing the economic consequences of the pandemic with increasing our ability to care for our community. Partnering with payers to reward us for keeping communities healthy, rather than paying only for response to illness. Investing in care coordination, preventative services and  a more streamlined, affordable experience for those we care for. Working to eliminate systemic racism and deepen our equity efforts as a care provider, employer, purchaser of services, and community partner.

Cody Wiberg, PharmD, MS, RPh

Executive Director | Minnesota Board of Pharmacy

Challenges: An ongoing challenge has been decreasing reimbursement to health care providers, including pharmacies, despite an increased demand for health care services. Providers can feel pressured to cut back on staffing, with the expectation that remaining staff will “pick up the slack.” While increasing use of technology can help, I am worried that safety may ultimately be compromised.

Strategies: Our online COVID-19 FAQ document allows us to exercise enforcement discretion, effectively waiving certain statutes and rules so that pharmacists can provide care to their patients in a manner that minimizes risk of coronavirus spread. The Board works with licensees on the use of new technologies, and on the development of new practice procedures that can help them deal with the increased demand for services.

Stuart Williams, JD

President | Minnesota Board of Pharmacy

Challenges: All health care professions are undergoing rapid, dramatic changes in their work, from advances in medicines, procedures, practice settings, education, telemedicine, professional collaboration, rising patient expectations, and regulatory oversight.

Strategies: I have served as a public member on four Minnesota health licensing boards that interact with licensees in state regulatory proceedings and with health licensing boards in other states. This constant interaction with individual licensees provides insight and helps us to stay abreast of changes and innovations. Together, these efforts ensure Minnesota’s health licensing boards are effective in their critical role of regulating the professions to protect the public in this rapidly changing environment.

Bevan Yueh, MD, MPH

Interim CEO | University of Minnesota Physicians

Challenges: In the short term, we are addressing the stress that COVID-19 has placed on our systems. It has exposed the fundamental challenges of affordability and access for patients. Our practice is looking for solutions, while recognizing that investments to address health disparities and improve quality on a long-term basis will not see an immediate return.

Strategies: In addition to essential research at the University of Minnesota Medical School, we are active in clinical trials to provide more effective treatments. As a health services researcher, I know that we need to reduce waste, eliminate errors, and design systems to ensure that patients get to the right doctor, for the right treatment, the first time they are treated.

Daniel K. Zismer, Ph.D.

Co-Chair and CEO | Associated Eye Care Partners

Co-Founder | Castling Partners

Challenges: Reconciliations of affected stakeholders to an acceptable, reasonable and rational definition of healthcare.  Politicians use the term as a substitute for “health insurance”. From the policy perspective it’s a resource in limited supply allocated to society that expects unrestricted, timely, affordable access.  For patients it’s what a practicing professional tells “me” I need when I am in no position to know otherwise.

Strategies: Addressing an organizational culture of extended professional accountability; accountability to the patient that extends beyond their immediate, presenting condition to a better understanding and appreciation for the related, external factors that we know will interact with their direct care to affect the ultimate quality and value of the services received.


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