Deborah L. Rice-Johnson: Exemplar of Perpetual Healthcare Advancements

Deborah L. Rice-Johnson
Deborah L. Rice- Johnson, CEO, Diversified Businesses, Highmark Inc. and Chief Growth Officer

When we think about the concept of leadership, many individuals may assume that leadership is the same thing as management. This could not be further from the truth – a leader is someone who plans to enable a plethora of innovations and work accordingly regardless of their position with an organization.

These proficient leadership charismas thrive with a vision – the ability to see the big picture of where the organization or team they are working within is headed, what it is capable of, and what it will take to get there.

Deborah L. Rice-Johnson is a resolute professional who focuses on understanding the challenges impacting the healthcare industry and has been developing a full suite of leading capabilities that have helped Highmark Inc. grow and scale its business.

She is also proud to be part of a leadership team at Highmark that is working to redefine the payer-provider relationship and deliver innovative clinical solutions that aim to improve health outcomes and lower costs.

Let us delve into an odyssey—

A Spark of Enabling Reliability

Deborah L. Rice-Johnson, the CEO of Diversified Businesses for Highmark Inc. and Chief Growth Officer, started her career in the pharmacy department more than 30 years ago at what was then called the Blue Cross of Western Pennsylvania. That organization merged with the Pennsylvania Blue Shield in 1996 to create Highmark, which is now one of America’s leading health insurance organizations.

She worked her way up to management roles related to strategic development, operations, IT, and customer service and became president of Highmark Inc. in 2010. Earlier this year, Deb became CEO of Diversified Businesses for Highmark Inc. and Chief Growth Officer.

As CEO of Diversified Businesses for Highmark Inc., Deb is responsible for Highmark subsidiaries, including; United Concordia Dental, the sixth largest dental plan nationally that serves the largest voluntary dental program in the world with TRICARE; HM Insurance Group, a top ten national stop loss carrier with additional managed care reinsurance solutions; and Helion, a healthcare technology and services firm that helps payers cultivate high-performing networks while empowering providers to operate at their best.

As chief growth officer, she is responsible for pursuing various strategic partnerships,  affiliations and acquisitions that enable Highmark to unlock the shared value to organizations and transform healthcare.

In terms of challenges, years ago, her late husband, Harry, was diagnosed with cancer. In an instant, Deb found herself on the other side of the healthcare system and filled with all the fear and concern that comes with caring for a sick loved one.

She recalls the time and energy spent travelling from one facility to the next, needing to remember to bring medications, imaging and other essentials while navigating a labyrinthine system of care. This is the industry in which she had built a career, and even though when they had phenomenal doctors and nurses, the experience was still challenging—not just for Harry but for Deb’s entire family.

This inspired Deb to take a patient and family-centric approach to her job and to focus on the customer first. Highmark has built products and services that simplify the experience for its customers. As an eminent healthcare organization, Highmark also formed partnerships that have taken on the rising costs of healthcare and increased access to care for its members. Deb shares how fulfilling it is to be part of this work because she never forgets what it’s like to be on the other side of care.

Integrating Excellence

Dating back to the Great Depression, Highmark has served generations of members, patients and communities through the best and most challenging moments in their lives. The organization is driven by its mission: to create a remarkable health experience, freeing people to be their best. Its vision is a world where everyone embraces health.

While its mission remains its North Star, Highmark has grown to create remarkable health experiences for more customers and communities in new and innovative ways. It is part of a national blended health organization that brings together a diverse portfolio of businesses that cover a spectrum of essential health-related needs in service to its customers and communities, including: health insurance, healthcare delivery, population health management, dental solutions, reinsurance solutions, and innovative, technology solutions.

Highmark’s diverse family of businesses enables a unique opportunity to reimagine the healthcare experience to become one that is simplified, personalized and proactive.

A Proficient Leader

As president of Highmark Inc., Deb had the pleasure of leading a remarkable team for her company’s multistate health insurance organization. She has completed successful affiliations in Delaware, West Virginia, Western and Northeastern New York, as well as a merger in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Today, she is proud to say that Highmark Health Plans are among the largest Blue Plans in the country, serving more than 6 million members, and Highmark Inc.’s revenue has grown to approximately $22 billion.

Deb is also proud to be part of a leadership team at Highmark that is working to redefine the payer-provider relationship and deliver innovative clinical

solutions that aim to improve health outcomes and lower costs. One of its signature programs is True Performance, a value-based reimbursement program for primary care physicians that has achieved nearly $2.5 billion in avoided cost savings since 2017 due to better health management.

In her current role as Chief Growth Officer, Deb focuses on understanding the challenges impacting the industry and has been working on developing a full suite of leading capabilities which have helped to grow and scale the business. Highmark achieves growth through a variety of strategies, including organic growth in membership, strategic affiliations, provider partnerships and joint ventures, and digital solutions. 

A Plethora of Novelties

Highmark’s mission is to create a remarkable health experience, freeing people to be their best. To achieve that mission, the organization ensures that its team members are working freely to do their best by creating a welcoming environment that celebrates and values its different lived experiences.

Listening to its team members and creating a safe place for new ideas is the best way to create products and offerings that reflect the needs of Highmark’s diverse customers. It’s crucial that Highmark maximizes opportunities for individuals with disabilities—both within the organization and in the broader community—to be at their best. Highmark is stronger as a company and stronger as a community when it grows and nurtures the skills, creativity and lived experiences of individuals with disabilities.

Highmark is proud to annually be named a “Best Place to Work” for individuals with disabilities in the Disability Equality Index (DEI®), a national benchmarking survey to measure disability workplace inclusion, and always strives to make Highmark more accessible and compassionate.

Adding to this, Deb says, “Similarly, we are committed to our Veterans. I have been privileged to chair Highmark’s Military Advisory Council, which strives to make our blended health organization a career destination for Veterans. Our team members who have served our country possess unique leadership skills, experiences and a team-oriented approach.  They strengthen Highmark, the communities in which we work and live, and our nation.”

“Our team members who have served our country are essential to carrying out that mission. Veteran inclusion in our workforce helps us deliver on the needs of our military members—including the more than 1.8 million military and family members worldwide covered through the TRICARE dental program offered by Highmark organization United Concordia Dental,” she expresses.

Also, with the size of Highmark comes the ability to make real impacts in the communities in its footprint. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Highmark’s blended health organization has invested more than $1.4 billion to support its customers, providers and communities.

“Highmark is also driven by our four Core behaviors. First, we place the customer at the center of everything that we do. Second, we aspire to have transformational leadership that drives us to create the future of health care. Third, we trust working together to achieve organizational goals. And, finally, we value purposeful execution—we value outcomes, not activities,” shares Deb.

Evolving Around the Emerging Technologies

Working in new ways and forming new partnerships is how Highmark solves rising problems, and it’s how this organization innovates. That applies within Highmark and in how it works and partners with other industry leaders. Highmark is working with fellow innovators like Google and Verily to deliver high-tech, high-touch and curated health experiences to more customers.

Instead of asking the customer to figure out the health system, Highmark has asked how the entire health experience should be re-engineered with customers at the center. Its technology partnerships are designed to eliminate the fragmentation and frustration that people currently have in their health experience and replace it with a more personalized, technology-driven approach. In addition to offering a seamless, simpler and smarter encounter at every step for patients, the organization is freeing clinicians from time-consuming administrative burdens and providing them with timely data and actionable information about each patient.

Highmark is taking the information and preferences of the customer, applying analytics, and creating a proactive, dynamic, and readily accessible health plan and support team that fits an individual’s unique needs.

Highmark doesn’t just want to improve the patient clinician relationship—the organization wants to transform the way it operates.

Envisioning Perpetual Authenticity

Sharing her opinions on what changes Deb wants to incorporate in the healthcare sector, she states, “I would like to create a more seamless experience that allows members to engage with their health more easily. If they, or a loved one is having a health event, I want them to have access to quality care no matter where they reside, and I want them to understand their options and benefits so that they can make the best decisions. When we can remove some of the challenges between payers and providers, I believe we can make a real difference, and we are leading that work.”

Adding to that, if someone is otherwise healthy, she says, “I want them to be empowered to engage with their health by providing personalized support so that they stay that way. This means monitoring their health consistently and educating them on which preventive exams to schedule. It also means taking the entire person into account, from dental care to mental health. If we can fix the fragmentation in the health insurance industry, we can improve health outcomes– that’s what matters.”

 Indulging in the Words of the Wise

Sharing her advice for the budding aspirants who are willing to venture into the healthcare sector, Deb shares, “Specifically, when it comes to health insurance, you need to be willing to step outside of the traditional health insurance environment.”

“Explore non-traditional solutions that will enable you and your business to differentiate and be willing to take risks to fulfil your mission. Never forget your why – the customer and engage your teams along the way (who can bring diverse customer perspectives),” she adds.

 Embracing the Future Roadmap

Highmark is committed to creating a Living Health model that builds a better system for its customers and clinicians through innovative solutions and partnerships to deliver them.

Growth is the engine of Living Health. Growth helps the organization to maintain its position as a national leader among Blue Cross Blue Shield health plans, strengthens its ability to shape care locally, and improves its cost competitiveness.

That translates to better care, lower cost and greater access for its members and patients. Deb is focused on achieving growth in a variety of ways—including organic growth in membership, strategic affiliations, provider partnerships and joint ventures, and digital

solutions. “Ultimately, growing allows us to boost healthcare affordability and accessibility, better engage members and clinicians, and continue a legacy of community-oriented

healthcare service,” concludes Deb.