By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
Patty Fontneau, the executive who has been synonymous with Colorado’s health exchange and both its successes and shortcomings, is leaving to join the insurance industry.
Fontneau announced Thursday that she will resign as CEO and executive director of Connect for Health Colorado in mid-August. She plans to join Cigna where she will become president of its private exchange business.
Fontneau’s departure comes during a time of reshuffling at the exchange. Gretchen Hammer of the Colorado Coalition for the Underserved stepped down as board chair earlier this month and Sharon O’Hara, executive vice president of the Colorado-Wyoming chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, became the new chair.
Myung Oak Kim is leaving within days as the chief marketing officer and her top lieutenant, Linda Kanamine, will replace her. Adela Flores-Brennan, who managed Connect for Health’s assistance network has left to head the advocacy group, the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative. And a former exchange consultant, Marcia Benshoof, has taken over a new executive-level job as chief of sales and strategy.
The board of Connect for Health plans to meet next week to name an interim director and board members said they will hire consultants to conduct a national search for Fontneau’s replacement.
Gov. John Hickenlooper’s aides said he was not available to comment on Fontneau’s departure.
Board members deferred to their new chair.
“Patty Fontneau led Colorado’s health insurance exchange from infancy to becoming one of the top-performing exchanges in the nation,” O’Hara said in a press release. “She set a tone of positive attitude and customer-focused energy, and inspired staff and contractors to work as a cohesive team in the face of aggressive deadlines and an ever-changing regulatory environment.”
Fontneau said in a statement that she was proud of her staff and partners.
“We increased access, affordability and choice for individuals, families and small businesses purchasing health insurance in Colorado. We delivered an entirely new service for Coloradans,” she wrote in the press release.
Both industry and consumer representatives said news of Fontneau’s departure is major since she has been such a hands-on leader. She took it upon herself to sign people up for health insurance during the crunch before deadlines in the first open enrollment period, fielded calls from lawmakers when constituents were having trouble with the sometimes-clunky exchange computer system, took the heat when U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet got stuck waiting on hold as he tried to sign up for coverage, and outraged critics when she asked for a raise in the early fall, long before Connect for Health had signed up many customers.
Ultimately, Colorado did relatively well among the 14 states that created their own exchanges and Fontneau and her team have signed up about 140,000 customers for private health insurance.
“It’s sad to see her go. We were lucky to have her and her energy,” said Marc Reece, associate director of the Colorado Association of Health Plans, the group that represents insurance companies.
“There’s a shock factor that she won’t be there anymore. It’s a surprise only to the extent that Patty’s been there since Day 1,” Reece said.
Fontneau joined the exchange in December of 2011, well before it was named Connect for Health.
“We’re nothing but happy for her and she’s joining the industry,” Reece said. “I’m concerned only to the extent that we had a good working relationship with her.”
Reece and others said the turnover at the exchange is not a surprise since the intensity of the work has been overwhelming at times.
“It’s really a technology startup. If you look at any IT startup, this amount of turnover is completely to be expected,” Reece said.
Adam Fox, director of strategic engagement for the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative, said Fontneau will be missed.
“I think Patty provided great leadership as the exchange has been created and guided it through the first enrollment period,” Fox said.
He, too, said some reshuffling at Connect for Health is to be expected.
“You have to consider the fact that the exchange has really been in existence for three years while it’s only been publicly operational for the past nine months,” Fox said. “There’s been a lot of work that has gone into creating it…and it’s not surprising that some people are moving on to different opportunities.”
As the exchange’s board searches for a new leader, Fox is hoping they can find “a leader who continues to value input and feedback from the advocacy community and from consumers themselves and a leader who is going to continually listen and try to be flexible and adjust to consumers’ needs.”
Fox said Colorado can be proud.
“Colorado was able to get a marketplace up and running at the state level with a lot of stakeholder feedback,” he said. “For all intents and purposes, it was operational from Day 1 for consumers and that’s no small achievement.”