A jack of all trades
If there is a simple explanation for how Steve ErkenBrack’s career path veered off the trial-attorney path and into health insurance, it is this: advocacy.
ErkenBrack, who served as Mesa County district attorney before serving as chief deputy attorney general under Gale Norton, and then represented clients on both sides of the Continental Divide as a private attorney, also has some hidden skills, among them: expertise in one particular game of chance.
Before he took up law, ErkenBrack, according to his longtime friend, Larry Beckner, spent a period of time in Las Vegas, “where he became skilled at craps.”
Every year since 1983, ErkenBrack has joined “the Boys” at Trout Lake near Telluride for a weekend.
“Steve has taught the Boys valuable lessons,” Beckner said, “but the most important being how to play craps.”
In early 2002, ErkenBrack rolled a different pair of dice. He traded in his attorney title for a more bureaucratic-sounding title — vice president for legal and government affairs for Rocky Mountain Health Plans. He took over as president and CEO of the Grand Junction-based nonprofit in 2009.
The transition was more logical than it might seem and the key to ErkenBrack’s current interest lies in his previous one.
About the turn of the century, ErkenBrack was working at his law practice, in which he had created a uniquely Colorado-style niche. With feet planted firmly on both sides of the Continental Divide, he and his firm could represent West Slope clients in Denver and Front Range clients on the west side of the mountains.
It was in that capacity that he was hired to represent Rocky Mountain Health Plans to sue the federal government for money it had failed to pay the health plan.
“A year and 100,000 pages” later, Rocky Mountain Health Plans prevailed and ErkenBrack had a new mission.
“I might not be the best lawyer, but I read every one of those pages,” ErkenBrack said.
“That’s when he became enamored with Rocky Mountain Health Plans,” said ErkenBrack’s predecessor, John Hopkins.
Rocky Mountain Health Plans likewise was impressed with ErkenBrack.
ErkenBrack’s background at the attorney general’s office assured his client and future employer that he had an understanding of government’s workings to accompany his legal skills, Hopkins said.
In 2001 Hopkins was tapped to head Rocky Mountain Health Plans and needed someone to replace him handling legislative and government relations.
He turned to ErkenBrack, who joined the plan in 2002 and immediately learned that covering the Continental Divide was just the beginning.
“The times that Steve and I would spend in the office and in Washington, D.C., talking about politics and policy and strategy, and how they interact” as part of developing policies, “I’ve got to say that I think back about some of those times as some real fond memories,” Hopkins said. “He was obviously a very bright and knowledgeable person.”
Though he has a different title and set of job responsibilities, one thing about ErkenBrack remains constant, Beckner said,
ErkenBrack’s “underlying faith is his guiding light,” Beckner said. “Steve studies the Bible and if you visit his home or his condo in Denver, you will find a well-worn Bible by his nightstand.”
ErkenBrack also singles out people for prayers, Beckner said, remembering ErkenBrack once telling him and his wife that they were the focus of his prayers for the week.
“It was comforting and much appreciated,” he said.
Hopkins retired as head of Rocky Mountain Health Plans in August 2009 and ErkenBrack, after what he termed “a yearlong job interview,” stepped up.
With that began a series of events that put Rocky Mountain Health Plans on the national map.
Many point to studies by the Dartmouth Atlas that showed Grand Junction had the nation’s highest quality and lowest cost for health care as the event that thrust Grand Junction into the focus of health care reform.
That’s at least part of it. Less well known was ErkenBrack’s appointment to the state’s new Health Care Reform Commission.
Throughout those meetings, “I would find myself saying, ‘The way we do it in Grand Junction ...’ ” so frequently that other members told him to knock it off.
One person who wanted more was Len Nichols, who headed the health policy program for the New America Foundation and with whom ErkenBrack became acquainted via the commission. The result was Nichols’ paper, “Grand Junction: A Health Community That Works.”
A New York physician and journalist, Atul Gawande, read Nichols’ work and wrote about Grand Junction in The New Yorker magazine.
The rest, of course, is still being written.
ErkenBrack’s role has changed with recent events, said Dr. Mike Pramenko, a Grand Junction physician, Dartmouth grad, proponent of health care reform and head of the Colorado Medical Society.
ErkenBrack is “doing more than running a health plan,” Pramenko said. “He’s a leader in health care reform, offering insight on the types of alignment we need to enhance quality and contain costs.
“He’s being very outspoken on what works.”
ErkenBrack smiles wryly when he recalls being asked to sit on the state’s health care commission.
I remember saying, ‘Seriously, how much time could it take?’ ” he said.
Explaining the Grand Junction system, with its enmeshed workings that include the nonprofit health insurer he heads and how it works with a series of nonprofit and charitable organizations, has become a mission that defies the physics of health care.
The Grand Junction community “is like the bumblebee — it’s not supposed to be able to fly,” ErkenBrack said.
Like the bumblebee, though, the Grand Junction model works. Just as the bumblebee’s wings operate in a helicopter-like fashion instead of birdlike flapping, the Grand Junction model works because, ErkenBrack said, “It’s a private system with an altruistic goal.”
That’s easily understood by most people, just not federal bureaucrats, ErkenBrack said.
He once briefed Washington, D.C., officials about how Rocky Mountain Health Plans checks in with patients recently released from the hospital to make sure they know have prescriptions and know how to take them, and are able to care for themselves.
The idea, of course, is to prevent expensive hospital readmissions, but it also boils down to basic care, the kind one might get from a friend or relative.
The bureaucracy was enthralled, ErkenBrack recalled, and some time afterward he got a call back from someone eager for more information.
“So, what diseases should it be for?” chirped the bureaucrat.
“It’s not about the disease,” ErkenBrack said, shaking his head. “It’s about the patient.”
ErkenBrack, Beckner said, “has developed a worthy vision for his life and I believe that vision is to be forever an advocate. In the DA’s office, he as an advocate for society, in private practice he was an advocate for his clients, in private life he is an advocate for his family, and as CEO of Rocky, he is an advocate for expanding and enhancing the best health care system in the country.”
So, as health care costs continue rising, straining Medicare and Medicaid budgets, and people still have the unfortunate habit of getting sick, ErkenBrack said his mission is growing.
“We’re out of money,” ErkenBrack said, thumping a table for emphasis. “We’ve got to find a way to build more efficient systems. We’re not going to do so by looking to Washington, D.C., to make decisions. We have to do it with the people in Grand Junction.”