Things could hardly be worse for AetnaUSHealthcare: The parent company's stock has barely begun to recover after a major plummet. Frustrated customers and providers are hesitant to trust in promised changes. And like clockwork, groups of attorneys file lawsuit after lawsuit against the company.
None of that deterred John Rowe, M.D., from leaving his post as CEO of Mount Sinai NYU Health to be the new president and CEO of AetnaUSHealthcare.
In fact, the chance to turn the company around was among the reasons Rowe, 56, says he moved from New York City to Hartford, Conn., last month to start his new job. He replaces Michael Cardillo, who resigned in May. Ultimately, all regional and national medical directors report to Rowe.
"We're in a situation where everyone, not just hospitals and insurance companies, even shareholders are unhappy with . . . health insurance," he says. "I felt it was very important to the future of the healthcare system. I wanted to participate in it. I wanted to get involved."
Key to the change is getting physicians on board. That goal was apparent when Aetna CEO and Chairman William Donaldson announced Rowe's appointment.
"Rowe is an outstanding choice to help Aetna accomplish its strategic goal of improving its financial performance by remaking its business model to meet consumer demands for choice and flexibility and enhancing relationships with doctors and hospitals," Donaldson said Sept. 5.
If initial reaction to Rowe's appointment is any indication, Aetna may be on its way toward achieving that goal.
Officials and members of the Connecticut State Medical Society have been among Aetna's harshest critics. When Donaldson spoke at their annual meeting in May, medical society members asked pointed questions and blasted Donaldson for the insurer's perceived wrongdoings. The society last fall successfully persuaded the state's attorney general to look into Aetna's practices, an investigation that's ongoing.
But since Donaldson took over in February, the society's executive director, Tim Norbeck, has been cautiously optimistic that the company may be changing.
Norbeck says Rowe's appointment is "another positive. He's been a physician. He's run a facility, and he's well aware of the dark side of managed care."
Rowe will head the healthcare company after Aetna completes the sale of the majority of its nonhealthcare business. Donaldson, the current CEO, will remain as chairman of parent company Aetna. The company will retain some of its retirement benefits programs.
During his tenure at Mount Sinai, Rowe oversaw the 1998 merger of the Mount Sinai and NYU medical centers and the purchase of Western Queens Community Hospital. He was a professor of medicine and the founding director of the division on aging at Harvard Medical School. A gerontologist, Rowe earned his medical degree from the University of Rochester (N.Y.) School of Medicine in 1970.
The time was right, Rowe says, for a major career change. The chance to make that move with Aetna was too appealing, he says.
"They're the largest health insurer with over 20 million (enrollees) and over $20 million in revenues," Rowe says. "And it seemed to me to provide a very stable and influential platform from which to participate in the dialogue with providers and patients and sponsors regarding the next evolution of health insurance."
That evolution requires establishing better relationships with physicians and hospitals, he says. Eliminating the hassle factor--and by extension the adversarial relationship--will be in the best interest of the physicians and patients, Rowe says.
"What Aetna is going to do is to do the same thing the doctor does: Put the patient at the center of what we can do."
But insurance officials can't do that alone, he says. Physicians must change their perspective on what insurance does and what it is.
"Many physicians see the insurance company as the enemy. I think that's wrong. I think they don't get it. I think our health system is a set of interlocking, interdependent pieces," Rowe says. And, admittedly, "the health insurance piece is currently the least well-functioning piece.
"This can be done," Rowe says. "It may not happen immediately. Not only can it be done, but this is important. If we get this right, this is going to make a difference."