Policymaker Profile: Sarah Iselin

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By: Margaret Schmid, Esq.

 Sarah Iselin is Senior Vice President of Strategy, Policy, and Community Partnerships and Chief Strategy Officer at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts (“BCBSMA”).  She is responsible for BCBSMA’s strategic services, including internal business consulting and strategic and business planning. She also leads the company’s corporate citizenship team.  Earlier this year, Ms. Iselin took a leave of absence from BCBSMA to serve as the temporary Special Assistant to the Governor for Project Delivery to oversee fixes to the Massachusetts Health Connector.  Prior to serving in her current role at BCBSMA, Sarah was President of the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation. 

 Ms. Iselin is the former Commissioner of the Massachusetts Division of Health Care Finance and Policy where she managed and monitored critical phases of the implementation of the state’s landmark 2006 health care reform law, including the formation of the Health Safety Net, and the Fair Share, Free Rider, and Health Insurance Responsibility Disclosure requirements for employers. She also co-chaired the Special Commission on the Health Care Payment System which recently recommended a major overhaul in the way physicians and hospitals are paid. Prior to her appointment as Commissioner, Iselin worked on the development of statewide quality and safety initiatives for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts. From 2001 to 2005, Iselin was the director of policy and research for the BCBSMA Foundation, where she played a key role in developing the BCBSMA Foundation’s Roadmap to Coverage initiative, which provided the framework for the states 2006 health reform law. Ms. Iselin earned a master’s degree in health policy and management from the Harvard School of Public Health and her undergraduate degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

1. You graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Subsequently, you received your master’s degree from the Harvard School of Public Health.  How did you find your way from the Art Institute into the world of healthcare?  

I grew up on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., and both of my parents worked in and around the Hill for their entire careers.  I am the product of an intensely political family; public service and social justice are issues that I have always been immersed in.  Growing up and attending public school in D.C. in the 70s, I saw firsthand how poverty and drug problems can affect a community, and I became aware of how much inequality there is in the world.  These experiences were formative and engendered a concern about community health as a social justice issue.

When I went to college, I initially pursued the interest that I had in art and art history, but I wasn’t too far down that path when I realized that I had a public services-oriented, social justice-oriented disposition, and I wanted to pursue this part of my interest professionally.  After college, I moved to Boston, and upon the recommendation of a family friend, began working for the Visiting Nurses Association.  I worked there for three years, and I found the work to be very interesting on an operational level as well as on a philosophical level. Healthcare is something that affects all people; at the beginning of life and at the end of life, we all have contact with the healthcare system.   It’s also an area wherein you’re dealing with matters of inequity, inequality, quality, and access, and it hearkened back to my childhood concerns related to community health.  Not surprisingly, my work at the VNA resonated with me, and I’ve been working in healthcare ever since.  Fortunately, though, I haven’t had to give up my love of art entirely.  I’m able to satisfy my creative urges in other ways; I have three young kids who require a lot of creativity.

2. You worked at BCBSMA early on in your career and then transitioned to the public sector as Gov. Patrick’s Commissioner of the state’s Division of Health Care Finance and Policy.  Later, you went back to BCBSMA and most recently accepted a temporary appointment as Governor Patrick’s Special Assistant to help solve the problems plaguing the Massachusetts Health Connector.  Generally speaking, what are your favorite aspects of working in the public and private sectors?

I’ve really enjoyed having a career where I’ve been able to move back and forth between the two sectors.  I think my private sector experience has made me more effective as a public sector leader, and I think my public sector leadership experience has translated well in the private sector. I hope to have a career where I continue to have opportunities to work on both sides of the aisle.

More specifically, I think that the opportunities to innovate, to experiment, to understand the concerns, constraints, and needs of businesses makes the private sector an exciting place to work, and I am able to bring an appreciation those issues into government, which, in turn, I believe has helped to make me a much more effective public leader.

In terms of the benefits of working in the public sector, if you’re someone who is passionate about change, there’s nowhere else that you have the opportunity to drive broad-scale change the way you do when you’re working for the government. For me, there is nothing more gratifying than having the opportunity to work in conjunction with the legislature to improve the healthcare experience of the residents of the Commonwealth.

3. If everyone involved with the Health Connector from Day One was sitting around a table today, what do you think people might say that they would have done differently?

Looking back, I think that the state – not just the government but everyone in Massachusetts –underestimated the impact and challenge of implementing the Affordable Care Act because we had already successfully implemented our own health reform law and because our health reform law was the model for the national health reform law.  However, as we got further down the path of ACA implementation and as the federal government began to issue regulations, it became clear how many things were actually different.  And as is often the case, the devil is in the details.

In regard to the website project specifically, the common sentiment seems to be, ‘Well, you had a functioning website before, why is it so hard to adapt it to the ACA’s requirements?’  Folks don’t appreciate that it’s really an ‘apples to oranges’ comparison.  Massachusetts’s original website was a tool that allowed people to compare health plans.  The ACA drastically increased the website’s functionality requirements.  Under the ACA, states’ insurance exchanges need to present various insurance options to consumers as well as have the capability to process online insurance applications, make immediate eligibility determinations, and ideally allow consumers to begin paying premiums.  At the end of the day, the ambitions of our state, and the governance structure that we put in place to manage that project, and the vendor we picked, were not the right ingredients to be successful in launching that new website on schedule.

Though these are my own words, if we could go back and do everything over again, I think folks would agree that the project should have only ever had a single point of accountability; the tripartite governance structure involving the Commonwealth Connector Authority, MassHealth, and the University of Massachusetts Medical School was too cumbersome.  Hindsight being 20/20, we also should have scaled back our ambitions for the first year roll-out given the tight timeframe, and we should have selected a different vendor partner to develop the software.

4. The revamped Health Connector is scheduled to be ready by Nov. 15 for consumers to enroll in new health plans for 2015 and Massachusetts is pursuing a “dual track” strategy.  Can you outline some of the benefits and risks associated with each track?

When the Governor asked me to assist him in developing a plan for moving forward, I put together an Executive Steering Committee (consisting of ITD CIO Bill Oates, ANF Secretary Glen Shor, HHS Secretary John Polanowicz, Health Connector Executive Director Jean Yang, and MassHealth Director Kristin Thorn) to help in that process.  Working in concert with Optum, we took a look at all of the options that we had including assessing whether we could stay the course with our original software vendor, CGI.  We concluded that CGI could not get the software fixed and finished in time, and we recommended to the Governor that we part ways with CGI.  Having made that threshold decision, we then assessed the following four options: (1) start over from scratch; (2) hire a new vendor to fix CGI’s partially-built software; (3) adopt the federal exchange; and (4) implement at a commercial off-the-shelf solution.  We eliminated the first two options fairly quickly as being too risky.  But the two remaining options also have risks, and to hedge our bets, we decided to pursue both.

Migrating to the Federally Facilitated Marketplace is challenging because Massachusetts offers a greater level of subsidy for residents with incomes below 300% of the federal poverty line, and the federal exchange isn’t designed to support that additional level of subsidy.  And as we’ve all read in the paper, the federal site is not without problems.  In addition, the State’s intention has always been to maintain its own, state-based exchange.  We worried that if we adopted the federal exchange in Massachusetts, the state-based exchange would never become a reality. In sum, I’d characterize this option as having policy risks.

In terms of utilizing an off-the-shelf software solution, hCentive has received great reviews; it’s powering the exchanges in Colorado, Kentucky, and in New York.  The company also has small business exchange functionality, and hCentive has just been selected by the federal government to power their small business exchange.  Notwithstanding the foregoing, there’s technology risk associated with pursuing this path because while this software has a good track record in other states, our timeline is quite condensed.

5. Do you have a sense of the progress being made by hCentive on the state’s off-the-shelf software solution?

The Connector Board meets once a month and is closely monitoring the progress of both tracks.  At the most recent board meeting, there was a live demonstration of the hCentive product.  Based on hCentive’s most recent demonstration, I think folks are cautiously optimistic. Even though this track is not without risk, hCentive has been meeting all of its near-term milestones.  One thing that is notable about the hCentive track is that the software will be able to accommodate the higher level of premium subsidy for Massachusetts residents, and it appears as if this feature will be ready for the Fall 2014 roll-out.  We still have a long way to go, but I’m feeling cautious optimism on the hCentive front.

6. What advice do you have for individuals who do experience a disruption in health insurance coverage?

Massachusetts is committed to protect coverage for residents of the state, and has established a transitional coverage program to ensure that residents’ health care coverage is not affected by any glitches arising from the implementation of the exchange.  By way of background, when things didn’t go as expected last fall, Massachusetts – with support from the federal government – created Transitional Coverage, which is a temporary Medicaid fee for service coverage program.  Currently, around 200,000 people are enrolled in the Transitional Coverage program, and the federal government has extended the authorization to keep that program going through the end of the year.  This means that people will be protected for the coming months, which is great news.  However, because so many people will be moving from the Transitional Coverage program into permanent, ACA-compliant coverage programs, it seems imprudent to say that there won’t be any glitches.  And even though it’s not looking like we’re going to have anywhere near the problems we had last fall, it’s still going to be a change, and in the beginning, it might be difficult for consumers to navigate.

8. What are some current challenges facing Massachusetts payors?

We’re living in a time of transition in the healthcare industry and there’s an incredible amount of pressure and demand to make healthcare more affordable. This is challenging everyone in the healthcare industry from health plans, to physician groups, to hospitals to figure out how to achieve a vision where quality, affordable healthcare is available to all people.  Blue Cross Blue Shield Massachusetts is developing creative and innovative ways of managing these changes, particularly around the way we pay for healthcare services rendered to our members.  But it’s a time of change, that’s for certain.

9. Do you think there should be more transparency related to the Attorney General’s settlement with Partners HealthCare? 

That’s a hard question to answer.  There has been a lot more transparency in this state than there might be in others.  We have the Health Policy Commission, and the fact that there’s a venue in which this matter was discussed and reviewed is a great thing.  But consolidation is one of the big changes that I was alluding to.  The drive for more accountability related to healthcare spending is certainly a contributing factor to healthcare systems looking to integrate, collaborate, and in some cases, merge.  Providers are under pressure to gain efficiencies, to coordinate care better, and to save dollars, and I think there’s a belief in some parts of the healthcare world that large systems are best equipped to realize these goals.  But I think, too, that we don’t know the answer to that question yet. Nevertheless, I believe that the consolidation in Massachusetts’s healthcare marketplace foreshadows what we’re going to see happen in the rest of the country in the upcoming years.

10. Do you have any advice for any young lawyers who are interested in pursuing a path in healthcare policy? 

I would encourage people who are interested in policy to pursue public service.  I think that the experience and perspective one gains by working in the public sector is invaluable. And we need smart, committed folks to consider making public service part, if not all, of their career path.  There’s really nothing like it, both the opportunities that it creates and the learning that you gain from working inside the system.


Maggie Schmid, Esq. is an associate at Donoghue, Barrett, & Singal, P.C..  Prior to working for Donoghue, Barrett, & Singal, Ms. Schmid interned at Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services.  She also worked for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the General Counsel, Public Health Division during her third year of law school.  Ms. Schmid received her law degree from The Catholic University, Columbus School of Law in Washington, D.C., where she was a Note and Comment Editor on the Journal of Contemporary Health Law and Policy.  She received her undergraduate degree from Kenyon College.

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