Healthfirst exists to serve its members. It was born out of the need to serve the diverse communities in New York by offering low-cost or free government-sponsored health insurance programs. Pat Wang, CEO of Healthfirst, created the company while working in health finance and policy at the Greater New York Hospital Association. Ten member hospitals were on the docket ready and willing to sponsor the plan, and the company officially launched in 1993 as a freestanding organization. 

Since Wang returned to Healthfirst as its CEO in 2008, the company’s revenue quadrupled to almost $8 billion and it now serves more than a million members. Plus, the company is the only five-star plan listed on the New York State of Health Exchange for Qualified Health Plans and Medicaid, and one of two four-star Medicare advantage HMOs in its market. 

Healthfirst’s success can be found in four key areas. First, its sponsorship model is unique, permitting a greater degree of partnership with the provider community than can otherwise be achieved by a typical contracting relationship. The company’s relationship with the provider community is completely integrated as they collaborate on Child Health Plus, Medicaid, Medicare Advantage, Managed Long Term Care and Qualified Health Plans. Healthfirst serves low-income, vulnerable populations burdened by social determinants of health, which requires it to dig deep and get close to its members and communities. This is reflected in the quality of the model, membership satisfaction and an efficiently managed healthcare plan.

Secondly, Healthfirst’s board of directors – composed of leaders from hospitals across Healthfirst’s New York market – is completely committed to healthcare. Not only are they passionate about the company, they are also knowledgeable. There’s no need to explain HIPAA guidelines or other technical aspects; they understand the “quirky” ins and outs of the industry and contribute intellectual capital, as well as leadership to the company. 

Thirdly, Healthfirst prides itself on the quality of its staff. Employees can make or break an organization and the success of its efforts. But the company’s staff is committed to serving its diverse community of members.  

“The employees really care about the members and they feel good that the company is doing things that touch and change people’s lives,” Wang says. “Given the population we serve, finding insurance for them and their entire family, it’s very impactful. Even if you’re just in the corporate headquarters, employees do feel a connection to the ultimate end-goal that they’re helping someone.”

Lastly, Healthfirst is respectful of its major payers, the state and federal government, and wants to be good partners to them, bringing solutions to them that can improve care for all. 

Diverse Culture

The pace of change for any organization can be challenging, but especially in the rapidly moving field of healthcare. Healthfirst is working hard to improve and update its everyday tools and systems, while maintaining business as usual. 

“It’s like you’re trying to change the tires on a racecar,” Wang says. “We’re exploring new ways to connect to our major providers, in particular through electronic information exchange. We want to take that to the next level, especially with care management because I believe care management is going to shift in the coming years.”

Healthfirst made the shift over time from being a smaller startup to one that is more distributed thanks to this rapid expansion and pace of change. 

“We’ve been working on company culture norms to get us to the next stage of growth and existence,” Wang says. “I’m big on frequent and clear communications because different constituents communicate in different ways. I strive to tailor my management and communication style to the person I’m speaking to. I’m not just Pat Wang every day; I’m whoever the company needs me to be at that time. “

Wang believes that Healthfirst is a “neat” organization to be a part of, but she does find it challenging to attract new employees for some roles because New York City is very competitive for all industries. But with the help of recruiters and word-of-mouth, Healthfirst can get new employees in the door and win them over with the company’s charm, offering professional growth opportunities and an opportunity to have a real impact on the lives of the community. 

“I live in New York City, one of the most interesting places in the world,” Wang says. “The amazing thing about Healthfirst is that it’s located in so many diverse communities, all you have to do is go out with the staff and experience it.”

In addition to language translation lines used by all health plans, Healthfirst offers seven spoken languages other than English through live member services staff in its offices so they may serve the highly diverse population and huge immigrant community. Wang, a child of immigrant parents, understands that it can be challenging to learn the norms of a new culture, not to mention the complicated industry of healthcare and health insurance.  Therefore, Healthfirst tries to find physicians from the same or similar culture to help them better understand everything as they acclimate.

“I am very proud that we are top ranked in quality,” Wang says. “Given the population we serve, it’s hard, but I’m proud of what we’ve been able to achieve with our partners for our members. We are reducing healthcare disparities for our communities, with the goal of giving them meaningful and understandable healthcare that is better than anything they’ve had before.”

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