Twelve years ago, Holly Kortum was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was working for Kaiser Permanente in Colorado, where she began her career as a pharmacist, for more than a decade and half already. Kortum said that diagnosis provided some clarity as to why she chose a career in health care.

“I think you have a sensitivity once you’ve had a diagnosis like cancer,” she said. “You have a sensitivity of what it’s like to be a patient and you learn a lot personally from going through that experience.”

Today, Kortum is executive director of Kaiser’s Southern Colorado service area. She said everything she does in her job boils down to ensuring patients get affordable, high-quality care in a timely manner. This week, Kortum spoke with the Business Journal about Kaiser’s growing footprint in the Pikes Peak region, putting the patient at the center of care and remaining nimble in a rapidly changing industry.

Tell us about your background.

I’m from [Cedar Rapids] Iowa, born and raised. I went to the University of Iowa for my undergraduate and kind of grew up around the farming life. … My bachelor’s degree is in pharmacy and the day I graduated, I moved to Colorado. This is where I wanted to be. I’d been out here skiing and loved the beauty of it. … I’ve been with Kaiser going on 29 years now.

I started as a staff pharmacist and kind of got into management and different leadership roles. I moved to clinic administration in primary care, then specialty care, then oversaw several campuses in Denver. …  Along the way I went to [the University of Colorado] and got my master’s in business administration and a doctorate in pharmacy. In the last three years, I’ve moved to the Southern Colorado market as executive director.

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We know the logo, but what is Kaiser Permanente?

We are a health care insurance company and we’re a care-delivery system. We are both combined, so you get the best of both worlds. Other places, you buy the insurance and the care delivery is separate. Doctors have lots of insurances they’re dealing with. Because we combine the two, we bring a different expertise to the table that nobody else can bring.

What are your responsibilities as executive director?

I oversee all of the business, from rate position to sales and marketing to care delivery to finances to [overseeing] network physicians and delivery systems. [Kaiser Permanente] is responsible for more than 60,000 lives in Southern Colorado. We have three medical office buildings now. I eliminated the age restrictions at our Briargate location, which opened as a senior center.

We now have pediatrics there. Parkside just opened last January and we have a medical office building in Pueblo. We have around 100 staff between administration and the medical offices.

How has the health care landscape changed in the last quarter-century and how has Kaiser changed with it?

It’s changed dramatically. It used to be a “size 8, brown shoe.” You used to pay a copay and the cost of health care was hidden from people. They paid the copay and didn’t know what was behind the scenes and what things cost. That’s evolved and we have more transparency, but also more expenses to the individual. What used to be a pure [Health Maintenance Organization] model that Kaiser was, now has all kinds of plans, like high-deductible health plans. When members have to pay certain copays, they better understand the expense and are more interested in costs so they can be selective with plans now. … The health care exchange has also been a dramatic change. … It’s been up and down, and unpredictable. We saw that with Colorado’s health insurance co-op being removed from [the 2016] exchange.

How will the co-op’s going out of business affect Kaiser Permanente?

[Kaiser Permanente] in Southern Colorado has a little different model because we have both medical office buildings and network physicians. We can expand and contract fairly easily. In Denver and Boulder they’re staffing up in the medical office buildings so they’re ready for the influx of those 80,000 [individuals only] members [of the co-op]— a percentage of them — who hopefully select Kaiser as their insurer.

What’s the future of Kaiser look like? 

We’re pushing digital opportunities, like video [physician] visits. We’re also bringing specialty care into the market. We have an endocrinologist who starts this month at Parkside. We’ve added dermatology and we’re looking at other specialties that we have a need for in the market. We’re also looking to expand our footprint. We’re looking at whether other medical office buildings will offer more convenience to our members. We continue to explore different products that meet people’s needs.

And how does Kaiser in Southern Colorado rank in meeting the population’s health care needs?

When we look at uninsured, we’re doing better. We’re lowering the uninsured rate in Southern Colorado. We’re expanding services in Southern Colorado and trying to get more physicians hired. What [UCHealth] is doing with the medical school program [at UCCS] is a great opportunity to get more physicians in the market. We’re a community that’s aware and engaged, and trying to address health care issues.

What have been the greatest challenges in your three years as director?

The unknowns of the marketplace. Another challenge we’re working on is making sure the community knows Kaiser Permanente. We didn’t used to have much of a footprint in Colorado Springs. I think we’ve really tried to be known in the community as a health care partner that offers affordable care. That’s a challenge to get that message out.

Are there any skills you picked up as a pharmacist that have served you well as an administrator?

Really having the patient at the center of everything I do. That carries over from my pharmacy days and my upbringing. My parents set a great example. I look at my grandma and ask how she would be able to access this health care system. Could she pick up the phone and make a call? I look at it from my kids’ point of view and how they will be able to access the system.

Talk about your family and what you do for fun.

I have two boys and have been married for 21 years. They love to fish and I love to go with them. I love to hike, bike, play tennis. We ski. I love the outdoors.

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Bryan Grossman
Bryan Grossman has lived in Colorado since 1989 and is a graduate of the University of Colorado Boulder. He has been managing editor of the Colorado Springs Business Journal since 2017, and has also held the roles of reporter and digital editor with the Business Journal. Grossman has worked in a print journalism newsroom, on and off, since 2004.