Profile: After Career in Law, She’s Rising Quickly in World of Health Policy

Andrew Kitchenman | June 10, 2015 | Profiles
Incoming head of Health Care Quality Institute wants to put focus on needs of consumers

Linda Schwimmer
Name: Linda Schwimmer

Age: 50

Title: Vice president, New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute. She has been named to become the president when current institute chief David Knowlton retires in September.

Lives: In Princeton with her husband, Josh Lichtblau, an assistant state attorney general. They have two teenaged sons.

Why she matters: Schwimmer has become one of the top advocates for improving healthcare quality in the state. She wants consumers to have the information they need to make informed decisions about their own healthcare. And as she rises to lead one of the more respected healthcare policy nonprofits in the state, her visibility will only increase.

At the top of the institute’s agenda: Schwimmer wants all nine hospitals in New Jersey that currently don’t participate in the hospital quality surveys conducted by the Leapfrog Groups to join in – and she expects some of them to announce that they will get on board soon.

The institute works closely with the Leapfrog Group, which is one of several organizations that issue quality ratings of hospitals. Schwimmer said the unique advantages of the Leapfrog scores are that the methodology used is publicly available and that access to them is free.

Not a narrow-network foe: Schwimmer isn’t an opponent of so-called “narrow networks,” in which insurers limit the number of healthcare providers in order to lower costs and, theoretically, guarantee that patients receive high-quality care.

But the institute wants to make sure that all health plans include high-quality providers, and it is investigating what the proper role of government should be in regulating the size of networks, as well providing consumer access to information about the quality of providers.

“I do think it would be a mistake to design your network just on getting the lowest rates,” Schwimmer said.

On transparency: Schwimmer said the healthcare system doesn’t give consumers enough information, while increasingly expecting themto make choices about their care.

“We’ve already sort-of pushed the risk and the burden on them,” she said. “I feel like we’ve redesigned where we’re going to go (in requiring consumer choice) but we’re not necessarily being fair to people. I don’t think we’re giving them enough information to make smart decisions yet — or the tools — but I think we’ll get there.”

Family business: Schwimmer grew up in Long Beach, CA, where her father was an obstetrician-gynecologist in the Kaiser Permanente system. In addition, her father-in-law was an orthopedic surgeon at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, and both her brother and brother-in-law are doctors.

“I’m the black sheep of the family, being a lawyer,” she said.

Bankruptcy lawyer: After attending the University of California at Berkeley, and Georgetown University Law Center, Schwimmer worked in bankruptcy law, eventually becoming a partner in Lawrence-based Markowitz, Gravelle & Schwimmer. She worked with small businesses, from Jersey Shore bars to family-owned pharmacies.

“The beauty of bankruptcy law is that they can get a clean start. They come and tell you all of their problems and you fix it, or at least try,” she said.

Whirlwind decade: At age 40, Schwimmer looked to switch careers, to “wake up every morning and be passionate” about work. She started to do volunteer work for the Senate Majority Office, which led to being hired as a committee staffer, including work on healthcare and health insurance laws. Over the following years, she moved to positions with the Department of Banking and Insurance and Horizon Healthcare Innovations – the division of the insurer that’s seeking to change the healthcare delivery system.

What she learned: Schwimmer said she took away something different from each job, all of which she applies in her current position. From the Legislature, she gained a deep understanding of the political as well as the policy process. At DOBI, she “got a better understanding of how hard it is to implement all of these crazy laws that the Legislature passes,” as well as how they affect doctors, hospitals and insurers. And at Horizon, she worked directly with primary-care doctors, providing them with patient data that they found valuable in changing how they provided care to patients, she said.

Perfect match: Schwimmer joined the institute in 2013, drawn to by the organization’s goal of working with all of the different healthcare interests to serve consumers.

“I like to try to convince people to work together to get to yes,” she said.

Plaudits from policymakers: Schwimmer has quickly had an impact on healthcare policy, according to Sen. Joseph F. Vitale (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Senate Health, Human Services, and Senior Citizens Committee.

“She’s obviously really smart,” but it’s her experience with both the legislative and executive arms of government, as well as the private sector, that’s “given her a very well-rounded perspective and understanding of the way these institutions work,” Vitale said. “People respect her judgment and her research.”

Out of network: Schwimmer worked closely with the sponsors of a bill that seeks to curtail unexpected high out-of-network hospital bills. She said she’s disappointed that it’s become a fight between some providers and the insurers, when “the group that ends of getting hurt in this fight and ends up getting hurt in the delay in solving the issue once and for all is really individual” patients.

Hobbies: Schwimmer enjoys running and gardening.

How she keeps up on healthcare policy: Schwimmer reads several blogs published by the journal Health Affairs, as well as the daily industry-news emails FierceHealthcare and FierceHealthPayer.

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