Cynthia Finter was all set to be a doctor. She'd wanted it since childhood. She'd made the grades and done the groundwork, and was halfway through a six-year bachelor's-medical degree program at the University of Missouri at Kansas City.
Then several family losses, including her mother's death, led her to re-examine her goals. She began to be bothered by the healthcare system's all-too-frequent focus on the provider rather than the patient. She realized she had professional interests, such as a knack for finance, that medical school wasn't going to address. So she switched to studying healthcare administration.
She's been there ever since, first managing HMOs, putting together provider networks and evaluating managed-care plans as a consultant with Towers Perrin. Joining Cigna Corp. at the tender age of 31, she led several turnaround initiatives as president of its plans covering Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, and won the organization's Giraffe Award for being willing to stick her neck out.
Her current position with Kaiser Permanente is her second; she joined the organization in 1998 to turn around the organization's Kansas City HMO, and while it ultimately was sold, Kaiser regarded her highly enough to offer her the head spot in the Northwest. As president of Kaiser Foundation Health Plan and Hospitals' Northwest Region, in Portland, Ore., she oversees 450,000 members, one owned hospital, seven contract hospitals, 20 outpatient medical offices and 7,400 employees. Since taking over in late 2001, she's increased revenue by 15.5% and net income by $55 million.
Does Finter ever wish she'd stuck with medical school? "I have never regretted it, not once," she says. "I spend a lot of time with medical colleagues who say, `If I had known then what I know now.' "
Part of her good fortune was in hitting the healthcare job market in the mid-1980s, just as managed care was taking hold. She started out with Prudential Insurance Company of America, putting together provider networks, a position she held for five years. Did her fellow healthcare administration students, mostly working for providers, give her a hard time for defecting to managed care? "Oh, heavens yes," she says. "But I was struck by the potential for making the system more patient-centered." While that potential has yet to be fully realized, Finter's personal mission is to make her health plans more customer-centric.
Since college she had admired Kaiser's leadership role in managed care, and she jumped at the chance to join the organization. Her proudest accomplishment so far has been the creation of a tight and effective management team that includes two-thirds new blood and one-third Kaiser veterans. "I like to find people's passion and strength and move them to fill that role so they can share with other people."