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CEOs say decisions made during time of crisis will impact future strategies

"We're at the beginning of defining what omnichannel means for health," says CVS Health CEO Larry Merlo.

Susan Morse, Managing Editor

For CEOs, the COVID-19 crisis has meant making decisions without having all of the information needed, learning the full extent of what it means to be nimble and working a lot of long days.

"We're all working 14, 15 hours a day. No one has had a break since March," said Karen Ignagni, CEO of Emblem Health, speaking with two other CEOs Thursday during America's Health Insurance Plans' Online Institute and Expo. 

CVS Health CEO Larry Merlo said that when the crisis hit, he and his team didn't have much time and had to make decisions before having all of the needed information, which would not happen under normal circumstances.

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In late January, when they started hearing about the coronavirus, CVS formed a work group.

"We began to define potential scenarios. And obviously it was a few short weeks following that it seemed like the world around us changed in a matter of 72 to 96 hours," Merlo told Matt Eyles, president and CEO of AHIP, during a keynote session this week.

CVS created a road map of four basic principles centered on ensuring the health and safety of colleagues and customers, business continuity, the pharmaceutical supply chain and communication with stakeholders – from customers to regulator policymakers.

As much of the rest of the country was contracting from an operating point of view, he said, CVS was operating a business whose services and products were needed.

This raised the concern of not only the physical health of their employees, but the anxiety and the logistics of working from home while daycare and schools were closed.

Merlo said he questioned what else CVS could have done to balance colleagues' work environment and home environment.

Other CEOs said this was also an issue for them. They became more understanding and approachable, as everyone in the company felt the same amount of stress at having to manage work life, home life and the worry of infection.

What hit her, Ignagni said, was "your team understanding you're approachable and that you're going through what they're going through."

When she asked, "How are you doing?" it became not just a rote greeting. She waited for the answer. She wanted to create an environment in which employees could honestly say how they were coping.

"Which is hard to do virtually," she said.

"I would add, isn't it odd in a time of quote, social distancing, I feel a more personal engagement with 5,000 employers than ever?" said Mark Ganz, CEO of Cambria. "People's sense of pride and purpose to the company … it's the highest it's ever been in the 17 years I've been a CEO. I think we've all had to work harder and be intentional. There's an intensity to the connection."

It was also personal to Ganz, who got the virus in early February and fought it for a month.

"It put me in a certain frame of mind," he said. It was one of understanding the fear and anxiety felt by all, including himself.

Gregory Adams, CEO of Kaiser Foundation Health Plans and Hospitals said, "One of the takeaways for me was owning the ability to be courageous leaders."

That included working virtually alongside staff, being on the phone at seven o'clock at night trying to secure PPE.

The work is far from over, and decisions made by the CEOs under stress will have future implications.

"The decisions we make today, we won't know the true impact for two or three years," Ganz said. "There's a lot at stake."

Virtual care, telehealth, prescription deliveries, all became part of the solution, according to Merlo.

Ongoing strategy decisions include Aetna, which officially became part of CVS in December 2018.

That decision was based on the need to transform how healthcare is delivered and to make it more local, Merlo said. Making healthcare local is part of what's come out of the pandemic.

CVS's home infusion company worked on discharging patients early into the convalescence of their homes with infusion therapy to free up needed hospital beds. Infusion services have made about 80,000 visits since the pandemic began.

It begs the question of what the new normal will look like.

CVS already has in place the omnichannel cross content retail experience of both in-store and online shopping.

"I think," said Merlo, "we're at the beginning of defining what omnichannel means for health."

Twitter: @SusanJMorse
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