Laurence Abramson's father said that when Mount St. Helen's blew on May 18, 1980-the day his son graduated from Reed College in Portland, Ore.-"they were trying to tell us something."
The signs weren't wrong. By the time he was 38 in 1995, Abramson had been named chairman and chief executive officer of SelectCare, a money-losing, provider-owned HMO. He executed its turnaround and negotiated its merger with another provider-owned HMO.
Such early accomplishment is "very unusual," says John F. Tiscornia, senior partner in charge of Arthur Andersen & Co.'s West Coast healthcare practice.
SelectCare, a 135,000-enrollee HMO owned by PeaceHealth in Bellevue, Wash., had lost about $4 million the year before Abramson took charge. "Sometimes I think I attract adversity," says Abramson, now 39. But he also says he's energized by it.
An economics and healthcare course he took as an undergraduate at Reed set him on the healthcare path. The summer after his junior year, he did research for HCFA in Baltimore and, at age 21, was the primary author of an article analyzing the use of outpatient services by Medicare beneficiaries. It appeared in a HCFA publication.
Abramson wrote his senior thesis at Reed on the HMO Act of 1973. After graduating with a bachelor's degree in economics, he decided to get some business experience and a healthcare degree.
Abramson first worked for two years at Intel Corp. in Portland. He then entered the master of business administration program at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business while working part time at John Nuveen & Co., supporting teams of investment bankers "doing hospital bonds and mergers and acquisitions."
He got his MBA in corporate finance with honors at age 26, writing his honors thesis on valuating a hospital for an acquisition.
In 1986 Abramson became manager of corporate strategic planning for American Medical International and then chief financial officer for two of its hospitals in California.
In 1988 he joined the Executive Consulting Group in Bellevue and worked with medical school and teaching hospital clients for 20 months. In 1989 he was tapped by PeaceHealth to become its first director of business planning.
Besides conducting projects in each of the system's regions-PeaceHealth has hospitals in Alaska, Oregon and Washington-Abramson led negotiations to end its lease on moneylosing Snoqualmie (Wash.) Valley Hospital in 1993.
In 1994 Abramson moved into a new vice presidency in charge of integrating marketing, community affairs and managed-care contracting. That year, SelectCare began to bleed, and Abramson was asked to take over the HMO while remaining a corporate vice president.
Abramson got the board to spend money on adding medical management staff and more seasoned upper-level managers. Almost $1 million was spent on a "data warehouse" to track utilization and feed information to providers.
Abramson told his staff he wouldn't shave his face until the HMO was profitable. It lost more than $7 million in 1995. But in February 1996, Abramson announced in his weekly e-mail to his staff that there would be a public shaving ceremony in the board room. The corner had been turned. The HMO finished 1996 with net income of $300,000.
"Now we're losing money, and so is everyone else," he says. He says SelectCare expects to lose $2 million in 1997 because medical costs are rising faster than premiums in its market.
PeaceHealth has agreed to merge SelectCare with Providence Health System's HMO and PPOs, a deal expected to be completed by the end of October. PeaceHealth will remain a minority owner in the new plan, called Providence Plan Partners.
Meanwhile, Abramson has been promoted to senior vice president of business development at PeaceHealth.
At home with his wife, Patti, a former hospital executive, Abramson is trying to teach his 4-year-old daughter, Shelley, how to ride a bike. The Abramsons also have a 7-year-old daughter, Mary.
To "blow off steam," Abramson says he sings karaoke. His favorite song is the Frank Sinatra version of "Night and Day."