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Mary Coleman

At 38, Mary Coleman is the youngest female, Latina CEO of a health plan in the state of Colorado — perhaps even the nation. She took the reins at Boards of Education Self-Funded Trust Health Plan Oct. 30, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s been quite a ride.

“The challenge for me, being a brand new CEO of an extremely important organization, is that the core of everything hinges on trust,” Coleman explains. “So you imagine first, as a new CEO, trying to build new relationships and trust — and it’s all happening over Zoom. It’s just wild.

“But at the same time health care is changing incredibly quickly — in large part thanks to COVID. The adoption of telehealth has been astounding, while at the same time our professionals are at more risk than ever, every time they show up at school. 

“So it’s the balance of: How do you keep the kids safe and in school … but how do we also protect the teacher population and the school staff population who are extremely immune-compromised? 

“Then on the health plan side, it’s really giving us a chance to dive into what are some of the health drivers that our school populations are experiencing, and then how is that all compounding because of COVID? So things like depression and anxiety and overall well-being are really in distress. And they probably were before — but COVID has certainly brought that to the forefront.”

Coleman came to BEST with extensive experience in strategic health care administration, most recently with Centura Health. She also served as elected board director for Colorado Springs School District 11.

Can you explain your work and why it’s important?

I have kind of spent my entire career trying to learn as much as possible about health care — unwinding this really complex, hard-to-understand system, into things that are really easy to absorb and understand at its core. And then at the same time, almost five years ago, I joined the D-11 Board of Education — and there, I really got the chance to dive deep on public education. And what I found was they were both incredibly similar in their complexities: just a series of incremental policy changes and decisions that were made, that kind of compound into this very hard-to-understand thing, but one that’s meant to serve everyone to the best of its ability. I always wondered would I ever have the opportunity to blend my passion for health care and my passion for education. ... And then about a month ago, this role came available. 

[BEST] insures 25 self-insured school districts across Colorado. And the reason it’s so important is it’s just the perfect opportunity to keep our education professionals as well as humanly possible, and to bring down the premiums — I think we all know that teachers don’t get paid enough. And so I’ve always viewed it as: If school districts, with taxpayer dollars, can pay less for their health care services, then that money can go right back into the classroom, which is where it should go. And it can go right back to teacher salaries and staff salaries, and hopefully avoid taxpayers paying more and more taxes for school. My job now is to really focus on keeping the health of the population at the forefront of all of our minds, to increase quality and decrease costs — and to do that in a whole slew of ways.

What’s most rewarding about your work?

One thing I’ve noticed about health care — and I think education has a little bit of a prevalence here, too — is this tendency to just become obsessed with data. And data is so important; you can sit and stare at a spreadsheet and just get deeper and deeper and deeper into data. But the thing that is most important for me is always bringing the mission of what we do back to those numbers. So in health care, it’s just a reality that we have some patients who need a lot — and that care is very expensive, because it’s very complex and they have a lot that they need. But we can never forget that that million-dollar claim is a baby who was admitted to the [Neonatal Intensive Care Unit], who potentially had a secondary diagnosis of COVID. For me, that’s everything. Let’s not forget the people on the other side of the data. And then secondly, of course, is trying to help school districts alleviate some of their budget [issues, resulting from] the persistent underfunding of public education. That’s an extremely difficult challenge for all schools — and this is a really great way to alleviate the pressure.

How would you describe your leadership style, and how has it evolved? 

Initially my style was to charge forward and create as much change and enhancement and improvement as possible. And now I think I’m a much more reflective leader. ... I think I’m much more collaborative now than I’ve ever been, and I’m always, always seeking to learn more. I fully acknowledge there are a lot of people who know a lot more than I do, and I want to know them, and I want them to tell me all of the things. At the same time, I hope to do that for other people, too. So young people and diverse workforces and empowering other people is very important to me.

From the community, what concerns do you hear most often?

The people I engage with most are in the spaces of health care and education. I am a trustee with the Colorado Springs Health Foundation Board, and that’s where I can really get a pulse of what is going on in the community — which frankly, otherwise has been very challenging through COVID. ... I think one of the biggest things that rises to the surface for me in every conversation is around equity, whether that be health equity, or opportunity equity. I think that America needs a lot of leadership and we also need a lot of space to be thoughtful in how we’re providing education to children and to where we’re putting health clinics in the community. I think a lot of people are really anxious to talk about the Southeast side of Colorado Springs, which is where I grew up. But I see equity as being much more broad. It’s recognizing where everybody is, and then moving from there. That’s a key thing that comes up in all of my conversations.

What do you want people to know about you?

I really believe at my core that we have a duty to take care of each other. And my service, at best, is just a small way that I’m trying to take care of the people I see around me. But I hope that we can all focus on that a lot more intentionally. When it comes to our teachers, and when it comes to public education, that system is fairly fragile and very underfunded. And if there’s any way that we can keep people healthy, and take care of the people who are taking care of our kids, it always is the right thing.

 — Join Phil Long Dealerships and the Colorado Springs Business Journal for the 2021 COS CEO Leadership Lessons with Mary Coleman4:30-6:30 p.m., Dec. 9, at the Ent Center for the Arts.