“My day started at 3:45 a.m.,” said Chester “Chet” Burrell. And that’s typical for the CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield president and CEO. He spends his first two hours every day answering emails and making important decisions in the quiet of his home office before heading to work for a typical 12-hour day of meetings, presentations and perhaps a speaking engagement. But Burrell says none of it seems like work to him. Running CareFirst is his passion and mission in life. He encouraged students at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business to find what will “get them out of bed at 4 in the morning,” and pursue that as a career.
Burrell addressed a packed auditorium of about 300 students, faculty, staff and guests for the Smith School’s CEO@Smith speaker series. Burrell’s presentation was the first for the 2013-2014 school year.
At the helm of nonprofit CareFirst for nearly six years, Burrell’s mission has him poised at the forefront of healthcare reform in the U.S. at a time when the intersection of healthcare and business has never been more important. His organization is the mid-Atlantic region’s leading health benefits services provider, covering nearly 3.4 million members and handling about $33 billion in claims annually.
“Our mission is to serve those who need access to healthcare in the most cost-effective way possible. As missions go, it’s a meaningful mission. It really matters,” Burrell said.
And it’s about to get more challenging. On Oct. 1, the Affordable Care Act will go into effect, opening private insurance options to the millions of uninsured Americans. In the mid-Atlantic region alone 1.1 million are uninsured, and Burrell anticipates his organization will be covering many of those people – and shouldering the risk involved in doing so.
“We will go through a very rough period,” he said. “Whether we arrive at a better place, I can’t say. Whether its sustainable is uncertain.”
But one thing that is certain, Burrell said, is that there has to be new solutions to control skyrocketing costs that center around prevention and healthier lifestyles. Coming up with those solutions has become a driving force at CareFirst that keeps Burrell’s team of motivated employees focused.
“The thing I have enjoyed the most in my career is fostering that kind of culture,” Burrell said. He recounted how he landed in the CareFirst job – and admitted he never envisioned being there. He credited his current role to a combination of hard work, certain skill sets, and substantial good fortune.
“Whatever you think your plans are, they probably won’t come out that way,” Burrell told students. “Whatever opportunities you think you can engineer, probably aren’t the ones you’ll get or the ones you’ll take.”
A triplet, he was born to a family of limited means. It was a big step for his family when he went to college and on to graduate school, where he landed a competitive internship in the New York governor’s office. It was there that he was eventually introduced to health policy.
His work in the governor’s office set him up to be recruited to run New York’s Department of Behavioral Health and Mental Hygiene. From there, Burrell’s career took him to head Albany’s division of Empire BlueCross and BlueShield. He moved on to start a healthcare technology company in the private sector that he built up to 800 employees serving hundreds of thousands before selling it to RealMed. It was then that he got a call that CareFirst was looking for a CEO “I didn’t plan these moves, they just came,” he said.
He advised students to follow the wisdom his grandmother had shared with him: to be faithfully honest, diligent and perseverant, balanced and aspire to something bigger than yourself and bigger than money.
“If you find yourself in a job, find something else,” Burrell told students. “It is not about the money – though money is important. It is about the purpose. Money follows. When you get it reversed, you sub optimize both. Go to what matters to you, your mission, and lose yourself in the purpose. It’s a prescription for fulfillment.”