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In retirement, Burrell still aspires to lower chronic disease costs

burrell-chet0006rdChet Burrell says retirement is not going to stop him from finding ways to reduce the costs of chronic diseases and other expensive maladies.

The CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield president and CEO will step down at the end of the month after nearly 11 years as the leader of Maryland’s largest insurer.

Burrell plans to pursue roles as an investor in medical device companies, a nonprofit board member and an adviser to his son as he starts two medical schools.

“I don’t want to go home and rock on my porch,” Burrell said in an interview with The Daily Record. “I want to pursue the interest that I have with a little more freedom is the bottom line.”

As CareFirst’s leader, Burrell pushed the company to corral rising health care costs, particularly by managing chronic diseases.

Chronic diseases, including diabetes and heart disease, can account for a significant portion of health care costs. That is especially true when patients do not manage their conditions and their lives, only seeking treatment when the condition deteriorates to the point that hospital visits are required, the most expensive of care.

These chronic diseases can be especially present in rural and urban communities that present other social determinants of health, including access to healthy food and health services.

To attempt to counter costly hospital visits, CareFirst created a patient-centered medical home program to focus on treating these diseases in the community before a patient ever reaches a hospital.

The patient-centered medical home model works by organizing panels of primary care physicians. The panels can range from five to 15 doctors. The panels coordinate the care of patients with the most significant needs, including chronic conditions.

The model has decreased inpatient admissions and emergency room usage for these patients by 20 percent each. It’s possible the rates can drop another 20 percent, Burrell said.

“It is that the presence of chronic disease, multiple chronic diseases, in an individual that lead to multiple specialists, multiple drugs, multiple labs and so on, that the rise of that in the population is a key driver of health care costs,” Burrell said.

Much of Burrell’s post-retirement interests lie in investing, particularly in medical device technology companies as the sector seems poised for explosive growth.

As an insurance executive, Burrell believes he can bring a level of knowledge that many researchers and entrepreneurs do not have about the medical industry.

“I have a very good idea of what it costs, how it gets accessed, what its results are today,” he said. “I also understand how insurers cover such things and how people behave and what the general patterns in the population look like. Those are all dimensions that are not well understood by people doing research.”

Reducing chronic disease costs becomes especially important with the increase in a sedentary population that has been trending more obese, a known risk factor for many of these chronic diseases.

“This is what I would worry about: the aging of the population and the seemingly unending progression towards obesity and sedentary lifestyle, that that is breeding future costs on a grand scale,” Burrell said. “I would worry about that.”

Burrell has some other plans for his retirement, including taking advantage of the extra time to spend with his grandchildren and more opportunities for traveling.

But he also plans on advising his son, Dan Burrell, as he he founds two medical schools, including the Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine in New Mexico and the Idaho College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Chet Burrell already serves on the schools’ boards, but he plans on becoming more involved.

“I’ll be getting to work with him on that,” Burrell said. “I’m on those boards. This would become more active.”

Burrell also wants to pursue some interests outside of medicine, including solar and alternative energies.

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