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Larger forces at work in health care, former official says

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush has a message for New Mexico’s health officials: Don’t panic.

“It’s easy to obsess about Washington right now, but there are larger economic forces at play,” said Michael O. Leavitt at a board meeting for BeWellNM, the state’s health insurance exchange. “Eventually, Washington is going to come


Michael O. Leavitt, former Utah governor and head of Health and Human Services under George W. Bush, gave a presentation at a BeWellNM board meeting. Marie C. Baca/Journal

looking for health care models that you can’t find in a Senate caucus room. If you can make it work in New Mexico, lawmakers will be knocking on your door.”

Leavitt, a Republican and a former governor of Utah, now runs a health care consulting firm and has advised several states on setting up health insurance exchanges. He described the health care industry in this country as being “25 years into a 40-year transformation period.” The 40-year period began, Leavitt said, with the discussion of health care reform under President Bill Clinton, though where it will end is “anyone’s guess.”

Leavitt did say that whatever entities are likely to become the “general contractors” for the health care marketplace of the future will have to meet multiple criteria, including significant capital on hand to help manage financial risk and a clinical footprint to provide care for large populations of health care users. No one current entity checks all those boxes, he said, so there are likely to be many partnerships in the future.

“We have no choice but to create a uniquely American health care system,” said Leavitt.

He suggested such a vision might be one reason behind the recent bid by pharmacy giant CVS Health to acquire insurer Aetna.

When asked to provide advice for BeWellNM specifically, Leavitt suggested exchange representatives do everything they can to make New Mexico’s health care exchange a model for the rest of the country, including borrowing best practices from other states that run their own exchanges.

Though he warned against being preoccupied by partisanship at the federal level, Leavitt expressed frustration with his own party for what he described as “arguing against its own (marketplace) ideology” in its attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

“I’m not prepared to defend what happens in Washington,” he said.