As it has always done, Rocky Mountain Health Plans didn't have to go far Tuesday to find a new president and chief executive officer.

That's because the Grand Junction-based health insurance provider named one of its own, Patrick Gordon, to replace outgoing CEO Steve ErkenBrack, who announced last month that he's leaving at the end of August.

Like two of his three predecessors, Gordon has spent years working at the insurance company before taking over as its head, making him only the fourth chief executive officer in Rocky's 45-year history. First came Michael Weber and then John Hopkins before ErkenBrack took over a decade ago.

Some feared in 2016 when the then nonprofit Rocky was acquired by UnitedHealth Group, one of the nation's largest for-profit health insurers, the company's hometown approach would disappear.

It didn't.

"We had worked very closely with UnitedHealthcare about my successor, and, not surprisingly, I felt strongly that it should be a person who is familiar with Rocky. One of the things I think is a real terrific aspect of this is that my successor comes from within Rocky, which is the way Rocky has always done it, as I did and as John Hopkins before me," ErkenBrack said. "The recognition by United of the importance of that, and also the kind of people that we have working out there on Horizon Drive and throughout the state of Colorado, is something that bodes very well for the future of Rocky."

ErkenBrack said that Gordon was a perfect choice, and he should know. He was one of ErkenBrack's first hires back in 2003 when he was still vice president of the company, snatching Gordon away from the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing at the time.

While with the department, Gordon was instrumental in creating the state's Child Health Plan, a low-cost, short-term health insurance plan for children and pregnant women who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to afford private coverage.

"I brought him onboard to basically keep us in the Medicaid platform. He rebuilt the Medicaid platform, and in the course of that, he moved us into how we could use health information technology to help physicians transform their practices, and how we utilized that to integrate behavioral health into primary care," ErkenBrack said. "It was part and parcel of Rocky's platform of addressing everybody as a community. He's been engaged very much with the communities in western Colorado, broadening us even more from our core of Montrose, Delta, Mesa, to all of western Colorado."

Gordon's first eight years with Rocky was as director of government programs, and five years after that as an associate vice president in charge of community integration, payment reform and public programs.

In December 2017, Gordon became vice president of the company.

Gordon, who holds a master's degree in public health administration from the University of Colorado, was the man who figured out how to make Medicaid profitable for the small insurer, something insurance companies have struggled to do. That product, Medicaid Prime, serves low-income adults and their children throughout most of western Colorado.

It became a model program because it altered the normal reimbursement method and integrated behavioral health into the plan, saving the insurer money in the long run.

"The big part of why our Medicaid platform works is because we are directly, and our provider partners are directly financially accountable not just for meeting state budget targets, but for beating them," Gordon said. "I'm very proud to say that our plan, when it renews on July 1st, will operate at 2 percent less than the state fee-for-service equivalent, meaning that our plan performs financially better than the state average, better than what the law requires."

Gordon said he plans to continue — and eventually expand — all of what Rocky does, but to do so requires maintaining trust among all health care providers in Mesa County and beyond.

He said the company's merger with UnitedHealth, and that parent company's decision to allow Rocky to operate as it always has, will allow him to export Rocky's offerings not only statewide, but elsewhere in the nation.

"First and foremost, we live and die by our commitment to this community so there is no Rocky without western Colorado. If we fail to serve this community, we really are coming up short in our reason to be," Gordon said.

"That said, I think these skills, these insights, the approach that we take is very much exportable, particularly to rural markets around the state, rural markets anywhere in the country. It requires a different approach to doing business ... leverage local leadership, listen, meet face-to-face with people, use data and truth telling and transparency to solve problems, and come up with solutions together. That's rural health care."

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