Camden’s Healthcare ‘Genius’ Joins Insurance Giant to Take Reforms Nationwide

Lilo H. Stainton | February 1, 2017 | Health Care
Dr. Jeffrey Brenner says that joining UnitedHealthcare gives him chance to create lasting change in healthcare across the country

Dr. Jeffrey Brenner
One of the nation’s largest insurance companies will invest $15 million in the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers as part of a three-year partnership to build on the coalition’s groundbreaking work to help high-risk patients and reduce healthcare costs.

In addition, Dr. Jeffrey Brenner, the coalition’s founder and executive director, will leave to join the insurer, UnitedHealthcare, to help it expand a pilot program the company launched three years ago to connect patients who have complex health and social needs with appropriate services. Both groups announced the developments Tuesday.

“I think this is a wonderful marriage of a small community-based, grassroots organization that is very innovative with a very large company that wants to drive change,” Brenner told NJ Spotlight.

Coalition’s work has reduced costs and improved medical outcomes

Since the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers formed 15 years ago, Brenner has led efforts to knit together some two dozen hospitals and physicians, analyze their shared data to identify the most frequent — and costly — consumers, and surround them with targeted, comprehensive and compassionate care. The system has reduced costs and improved medical outcomes. And it has made Brenner, who was awarded a McArthur Foundation “genius” grant for his work, a national pioneer of the growing “hot-spotting” movement — as the data-driven, patient-centered model of care is known.

Brenner said his work with UnitedHealthcare will share many of the same priorities, but it offers a chance to reach far more patients and create lasting change in the national healthcare landscape. UnitedHealthcare covers nearly 6 million Medicaid patients nationwide, he said, with a network of 1 million physicians and 6,000 hospitals. “If we wake up every day and do a great job in Camden, it’s not going to change the system,” he said.

In his new role, Brenner will oversee UnitedHealthcare’s myCommunity Connect, a pilot program that operates in New York and a handful of other states to link patients with appropriate health and social services. He said the goal is to better link together physical health, mental health, addiction treatment and social services, “braid the dollars together” from the various funding streams that support this work, and ensure that this system of care actually works well for the patients who need the most help.

After a “listening tour” to better understand how the program functions on the ground and the role insurers play, Brenner said he will seek to expand myCommunity Connect to other states, including New Jersey. “I’ve got to build a home team,” he said.

‘Camden is becoming a hub of healthcare innovation influencing the nation’

And while Brenner is leaving the coalition, he is not leaving Camden. UnitedHealthcare is based in Minnesota, but Brenner will continue to work from his same office in the Cooper Street building occupied by the coalition. He will continue to lead the coalition, which employs nearly 100 people and has an annual budget of roughly $10 million, until the board selects a replacement.

“We’re losing an executive director, but we’re gaining a great partner,” explained Mark Humowiecki, the director of national initiatives for the coalition, which is also building a collaborative program to share what it has learned with providers elsewhere in America.

“Camden is becoming a hub of healthcare innovation influencing the nation,” Brenner noted.

Humowiecki said the UnitedHealthcare funding will enable the coalition to expand key pilot projects — like its “housing first” program, which connects homeless people with a safe residence and tailored health and welfare services — or explore other concepts, like helping inmates with chronic health issues transition from prison to private life.

The partnership allows the two groups “to try and design and test some ideas that have the potential to be scalable and used on a broader basis, both by [UnitedHealthcare] and by others in the world of complex health needs,” he said.

Make system work for its ‘most complex and vulnerable people’

Brenner agreed that UnitedHealthcare’s commitment will enable those involved to “create the first comprehensive, scalable and sustainable solution for one of society’s biggest challenges —reforming the health care system to make it work for its most complex and vulnerable people.”

He said UnitedHealthcare’s decision to invest in the coalition reflects the critical commitment made by others, including Gov. Chris Christie, who provided public funding for a pilot project the coalition launched years go with UnitedHealthcare and others. The Nicholson Foundation also signaled a “vote of confidence,” he said, by funding the coalition’s early development.

Brenner’s ‘passion and commitment … make him an ideal leader’

Austin Pittman, CEO of UnitedHealthcare Community & State, the group that oversees the myConnections program, agreed the partnership presents a unique opportunity to have a “transformational impact” on many aspects of the nation’s healthcare system. “Dr. Brenner’s passion and commitment to bringing sustainable health care to our most vulnerable people make him an ideal leader to further build and integrate our myConnections approach across UnitedHealthcare’s entire portfolio,” Pittman said.

The partnership will also complement and support the coalition’s own efforts to develop national collaborations. Last spring, the Camden group received $8.7 million from a trio of funders — AARP, Atlantic Philanthropies, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation — to develop an alliance with like-minded organizations around the country; as a result, the National Center for Complex Health and Social Needs held its first conference in December. The Aetna Foundation also kicked in $1.3 million to craft a comprehensive curriculum that the National Center can use to help teach other providers the “hot-spotting” model.

Brenner said the coalition’s National Center program will also play an important role in his new work with UnitedHealthcare. The alliance, which is planning a second conference in Los Angeles later this year, is responsible for coalescing the passion and ideas of those at work in the field. The insurance company, with its broad reach, can help them craft models that can be deployed nationwide.

“Corporations are good at scaling things, but they’re not the ones who do the basic research,” Brenner said. “At a time of change and uncertainty in our country, a vision and strategy for better care at lower cost for America’s most vulnerable patients is more important than ever.”