“I have never been afraid to push boundaries, and having a clear sense of purpose allows me to make a greater impact.”
As a young girl, Charlene Maher had no intention of following in the footsteps of her mother and aunts by becoming a nurse. After changing her mind and graduating from college with a degree in nursing, it never occurred to her to look for a job as a health care administrator.
Yet she became both, and the perspective she gained from working in those fields has made her shine as the president and CEO of Blue Cross of Idaho. No matter what the challenges, Maher has an unwavering focus on the mission of the not-for-profit mutual insurance company.
“Every action we take as a company should be considered through the lens of how it impacts our members,” she says. “We, as a company, are driven by a desire to make sure the people of Idaho have the opportunity for the best health care they can get at an affordable price.”
Under Maher’s leadership, the Meridian-based company is working toward that goal by offering shared savings options; medical management programs that help members get and stay healthy; and contracts with providers that emphasize the quality of care they give their patients, rather than the number of office visits.
Maher took the helm of Blue Cross of Idaho on March 1, 2016. The organization’s leaders were impressed with her passion for helping members improve their lives and the skills she brought to the job.
“Clearly the health care industry has been tumultuous over the last several years,” said Jo Anne Stringfield, chair of the Blue Cross of Idaho board of directors. “Charlene’s experience, intellect and commitment are the basis for Blue Cross of Idaho continuing to be financially stable.”
Climbing the ladder
Maher’s original career plan was to become a lawyer, but she later realized that nursing made more sense for her.
“I could work in any field. I could work any shift. I could work anywhere in the world. And as a wife and mother, this was important to me,” says Maher, who has been married to her husband, Don, for more than 40 years, and has three children and seven grandchildren.
Maher earned a bachelor’s degree from University of Texas Health Science Center and worked as a surgical ICU nurse in a cardiac unit in Texas and in California. Her career as a health care administrator began when she called Blue Cross of California one day and asked if the company hired nurses. That led to a wide array of jobs across the country in the health care field.
“I worked in all aspects of the industry, and the projects, the roles, the willingness to take on additional responsibilities led me to where I am today,” Maher says.
The positions she held included senior vice president and chief marketing officer for EmblemHealth, a New York health insurance and wellness company. She also held leadership positions at Medica, a Minneapolis-based health and wellness company, and WellPoint, Inc., where she became the vice president and general manager of individual business for 14 Blue Cross Blue Shield states.
Through that multistate career track, Maher evolved into a “superb health care industry leader” in delivering affordable quality care, according to Dr. Micheal J. Adcox, a nephrologist and Blue Cross of Idaho board member.
“In each of these locales, she progressively acquired an exquisite set of skills in leading people to deliver increasingly sophisticated health care insurance products to the public,” Adcox says.
In addition to her role as a president and CEO, Maher is the chair-elect of the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce board of directors and the chair of the Idaho Association of Health Plans board of directors, as well as a member of numerous Blue Cross Blue Shield Association committees.
Thinking outside the box
Maher believes in constantly challenging employees to improve, learn and innovate — and to always stay true to the mission of helping the organization’s members, regardless of whether economic times are good or bad.
“I am passionate about improving the health care landscape for all Idahoans, and that overarching goal is what drives me to find innovative ways to challenge the status quo,” Maher says. “I have never been afraid to push boundaries, and having a clear sense of purpose allows me to make a greater impact.”
Maher is especially excited about an innovation that changes the traditional model of compensating providers based on the number of visits or procedures. Under a value-based model, when providers deliver care below statewide average costs and meet required quality benchmarks, the patients and the providers share in the savings.
To help its provider and facility partners in this effort, Blue Cross of Idaho created an analytics team that provides real-time data on health trends and patient health outcomes. The result has been improved care and lower costs, Maher says.
Setting an example
Maher also is helping fight disease and save lives in another way. When the St. Luke’s Health System mobile mammography coach rolled up to Blue Cross of Idaho’s headquarters on a regular visit one day, she decided to get a screening even though she wasn’t due for one.
That decision led to the discovery that Maher had Stage 2 breast cancer. Catching the cancer relatively early gave her an excellent prognosis.
It also presented her with an opportunity to motivate other women to get mammograms. Although she is a private person, Maher shared her story on St. Luke’s blog about how early detection might have saved her life.
Now, nearly every day, employees and members of the community tell her that they have scheduled their own screenings.
“There are so many stories, and it made me realize that we need to be present in our communities and share,” Maher says. “If I learned anything from this experience, it is that it is the community that can heal you, emotionally and physically. We have to help and fight for each other.”