His time in government was a prelude to a career managing health benefits
By Laurence D. Cohen
October 03, 2011
Be warned all ye who enter here.
Don’t engage Robert Patricelli in some sort of casual conversation about how you were pulling weeds in the garden and you were attacked by poison ivy and now it really itches and you can’t seem to relieve the problem.
By the end of the day, Patricelli will have issued you a Health Savings Account debit card, with the amount of the deductible tied to the cost of Saudi crude on Tuesdays at 4 p.m. Your dermatologist will have been sucked into a medical network controlled by Patricelli, because no solo practitioner can navigate the stormy sea of health reimbursement accounts and flexible spending accounts and Cayman Island Holding Accounts Just for Dermatologists that only Patricelli understands.
Patricelli will have held a press conference, warning of the danger of untreated poison ivy rash – and he will produce a white paper explaining the history of poison ivy treatment through the ages, with suggestions about how the Obama administration might handle the poison ivy crisis unfolding before our very eyes.
And then, Bob and his wife will unleash their family foundation on the problem, training young researchers on how best to staff, fund and govern nonprofit agencies devoted to the epidemic of poison ivy throughout the world.
And all of that will have been done by noon, on the day that you met Robert Patricelli.
At age 71, Patricelli, if pressed, hints that he is finally slowing down just a bit, except, of course, for the buying and the selling and the creating and the merging of business ventures and nonprofit entrepreneurship and philanthropy and casual conversation about everything you ever wanted to know about health care policy through the ages.
After a smarty-pants, terrific educational journey through the Loomis Chaffee School, Wesleyan and Harvard Law, Patricelli was on his way to a Wall Street legal job when he got lost on the Connecticut Turnpike of Life and ended up in Washington, as a White House Fellow, minority counsel to a Senate subcommittee, deputy undersecretary for policy at the old Department of Health, Education and Welfare; and an administrator at the Urban Mass Transportation Administration.
And then it was home again, to what was then Connecticut General, and later Cigna, where he rose to be executive vice president – and president of the health care group.
Ah, health care. It was here that all the Patricelli strengths and interests came together: the business acumen, the public policy, the social service concerns, the Partridge in a Pear Tree stew of issues large and small that fall under the rubric of “health.”
‘I’ve been a business entrepreneur all my life,” Patricelli says. “You must be willing to take a risk; willing to provide leadership.”
In the vast mess of what was called “managed care,” Patricelli saw opportunities, saw frailties, saw niches. After leaving Cigna in 1986, he co-founded Value Health, purveyor of mental health and prescription drug expertise and endless paperwork and processing to HMOs and other group health delivery systems.
And so it began – a string of buying and selling and borrowing and merging and packaging health-related niche businesses. Evolution Benefits, his health-benefits payment vendor through the magic of electronics, has recently been acquired by an equity firm.
He continues as chairman and chief executive officer of Women’s Health USA, which provides administrative and back-room business services to a branded network (including Women’s Health Connecticut) of obstetricians and gynecologists in New York and Connecticut.
There is much to be done – and no time to be wasted.
“He tells us all to come up with ‘shorter answers,’ which actually teaches you to be concise,” explains Nancy Bernstein, president and CEO of Women’s Health Connecticut. “He wants yes-or-no answers, not rambling ‘ifs, ands and buts.’”
Time is precious in a Patricelli world, because, as Bernstein explains it, “he is a brilliant man who has been highly successful throughout his life, and has been generous to the community, his family, his friends and colleagues, with his time and his resources.”
And others have noticed that no area of business or civic or cultural life is immune to the Patricelli charms – or his commitment of time and money.
“He’s been an exceptional asset on multiple fronts,” says Oz Griebel, president and CEO of MetroHartford Alliance, where Patricelli serves on the Board of Directors. “The employment and wealth generation; it speaks for itself. On matters of public policy, at the national and state level, he has been a champion of creating a business climate that is hospitable to entrepreneurs as well as major corporations. And he’s been intimately involved in the arts-and-culture community.”
To John Rathgeber, president and CEO of the Connecticut Business & Industry Association, Patricelli is an example of the benefit that comes to a region when a local boy makes good.
“He’s not a transplant; he feels like he owes something to the community – he’s a product of the community,” Rathgeber says. (Patricelli’s father, Leonard, was a community leader in Hartford and one of the architects of the explosive growth of WTIC-Radio.)
Patricelli has been very helpful driving conversations on policy initiatives, ranging from affordable health insurance to student performance in Hartford schools, Rathgeber says. “He’s got a curious mind.”
The most accurate snapshot of the Life and Times of Patricelli may well be the new Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Wesleyan University. It will combine the keen interest in public affairs and policy that Patricelli fosters, along with the reality that even social service agencies and non-government agencies need to learn the business nuts-and-bolts, ranging from how to write a grant proposal to how to make sure the checks don’t bounce.
“He’s terrific to work with and inspiring to watch,” says Rob Rosenthal, provost of Wesleyan.
Is there an end-game in sight for all this? Apparently not.
“I’m really busy,” Patricelli says. “We’re helping physicians move into the new world; I’ve got the Bushnell (where he serves as chairman of the Board of Directors) and the philanthropy.”
Name of organization: Women’s Health USA Inc. and Evolution1
Title: Chairman and CEO of each (became vice chairman of Evolution1 upon sale and merger of predecessor Evolution Benefits in June 2011)
Size of organization: Together, $80 million in revenue Education: AB, Wesleyan University; LLB, Harvard University
Previous job(s): White House Fellow, U.S. Department of State; minority counsel, U.S. Senate Subcommittee; deputy undersecretary of Dept. of Health Education and Welfare; administrator, Urban Mass Transit Administration, U.S. Dept. of Transportation; President, Affiliated Businesses Group, and executive vice president, CIGNA Corp.; Founder, chairman and CEO, Value Health Inc.
On the job
Guiding business principle: Don’t be afraid to lead
Best way to keep your competitive edge: Talk to customers and competitors; read everything
Proudest accomplishment: Can’t pick one thing
Goal yet to be achieved: Help to truly reform health care
Favorite part of the job: Helping other people succeed
Least favorite part of the job: Firing someone
Most influential business book: Don’t read business books
Personal touch in your office: Lots of family pictures
Best business decision: Taking the risk to borrow money to start Value Health
Worst business decision: Chased dot com bubble with one start-up
Biggest missed opportunity: Time will tell!
Best place to network: Riverfront events
Best way to spot trends: Read everything about your industry
Next big thing: Taking cost out of health care
Your pet peeve: People who can’t get to the point
Snapshot: Robert Patricelli
City of residence: Simsbury
Favorite way to relax: Go to the movies
Last vacation: 10 days in England and Paris
Favorite movie: Too many to name—love movies
The car you drive: Lexus
Favorite communication device: Email, love it and hate it
Currently reading: Cutting for Stone
Favorite cause: (1) Bushnell Memorial Hall, and (2) Shining Hope for Communities, in Kenya
Second choice career: Tenor at the Metropolitan Opera