Steve ErkenBrack isn't calling it retirement, but he is leaving Rocky Mountain Health Plans as its president and chief executive officer this summer.
The 66-year-old made that surprise announcement to his staff Tuesday afternoon, saying that after 10 years on the job, it was time to move on to new endeavors, something he plans to do by the end of August.
ErkenBrack, who has headed the local health insurer for a decade, is only Rocky's third CEO in its 45-year history.
As such, he has become well known not only in the community, but statewide and even nationally.
As a longtime attorney, ErkenBrack admits he has a raging ego. Still, he attributes his success not to his own abilities — which are substantial "and loud," he says with a wink and a wide grin — but to the community that's worked together in an attempt to bring quality health care to the Grand Valley and beyond.
"What has made this a remarkable journey is ... we do the right thing for our members, but there are other components, too," ErkenBrack told The Daily Sentinel. "We have this amazing set of employees who have been working here 10, 20, 30 years who are the ones imbued with that sense of doing the right thing. It's been an amazing ride for me. We've had constant changes in the health care arena, but we've also been at the table to influence some of those changes.
"We've kept our Medicare platform until we got to the point we could transition to the next chapter, and it required multiple acts of Congress to do it," he added. "We have transitioned our Medicaid platform to be the leading platform in the state, and that does way more than just giving somebody a card and say, 'Good luck finding a doctor.'"
His immediate predecessor, John Hopkins, said that's why Erkenbrack has done so well, by maintaining that do-the-right-thing culture that he did when he held that role.
"We've had lots of changes in health care over that time, and he's been very successful navigating this changing environment and keeping true to the Rocky values," Hopkins said. "Lots of organizations say, do the right thing, but it has life there and it means something."
ErkenBrack's tenure leading the medical insurer has seen some big changes in the valley, from creation of a clinical network designed to help reduce the cost of health care for patients, to a major merger with one of the nation's largest insurance companies, UnitedHealth Group.
But his supporters say ErkenBrack's greatest accomplishment has been his ability to bring people to the table.
"He has been such a big part of health care in this community," said Chris Thomas, president and CEO of Community Hospital. "He's been very proactive. He's been approachable. That was our fear with Rocky joining United, that we wouldn't have that local connection. But it has been really a positive. I can call Steve and talk about health care anytime."
Thomas' counterpart at St. Mary's Hospital, Brian Davidson, said Erkenbrack has been the glue that has kept the valley's health care experts together.
Davidson, who's leaving his job as CEO and president later this year, said ErkenBrack's experience at Rocky and the Mesa County Health Leadership Consortium, not to mention his past experience as the county's district attorney and in the Colorado Attorney General's Office, had made him an invaluable resource.
"When I think about Steve ErkenBrack, I think about a guy who's kind of a jack of all trades," Davidson said. "He's a leader first and foremost, whether it's being an attorney or being the district attorney, a statesman, a communicator, a listener. He's an all around, jack-of-all-trades statesmen who can get things done. What defines Steve Erkenbrack is not one single thing."
Retired accountant and former treasurer on the Colorado Mesa University Board of Trustees Bob Wilson, said ErkenBrack's shoes will be hard to fill.
"Steve has been instrumental in getting so many things to happen," Wilson said. "The experience he has had in health care, in Washington, D.C., working all these years, that is nearly impossible to replace. You don't find people with that experience. You just don't."
Over the years, as an attorney and health care executive, ErkenBrack has served in numerous capacities in whatever career he's pursuing.
He has been chair of the Board of Law Examiners for the Colorado Supreme Court, and was president of the Colorado District Attorneys' Council. He's a Navy veteran who has undergraduate degrees from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. His law degree is from the University of Colorado.
ErkenBrack has served on numerous state panels, too, including the Blue Ribbon Commission for Health Care Reform and the Colorado Health Benefits Exchange board of directors.
Kim Bimestefer, executive director of the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing, said ErkenBrack is the kind of person who can be relied upon to help out when needed.
"There was never a time when I have called and asked for his counsel, opinion or engagement that he hasn't willingly stepped up to help," Bimestefer said. "In that sense, he will be missed."
She said ErkenBrack shouldn't be surprised if he gets another call from her in the near future, saying there's still plenty of work to do in the health care arena, and his expertise is invaluable.
ErkenBrack isn't ruling out anything at this point, other than to say he won't seek another CEO job. Still, he wouldn't say what he plans to do next, that's why he's not calling it retirement.
"Give me a little break with my spouse, will ya?" he said of his wife, Lysa. "I don't golf. I'm probably the only CEO who doesn't. I'm not retiring. I don't know what the opportunities will be. I will take a short recess. I'm pretty much going to turn to my wife and say, 'Thanks for the last 10 years. Now, what do you want to do?' "