Carl Ascenzo's dream job is to be a landscaper. The process of conceptualizing a design and nurturing seeds is satisfying to Ascenzo, who loves to garden with his wife in his time away from his real job as senior VP and CIO at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts Inc.
Dreams aside, landscaping and business technology have a lot in common. "Concept to creation--that's very similar to my job," he says. The main difference, as the 51-year-old Ascenzo sees it, is that a garden usually transforms into something fruitful within months, but it can take years to reap rewards from the labor of IT design and implementation.
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts is playing a leading role in a number of business-technology projects that have the potential not only to reduce costs and improve efficiencies and services for the company but to transform Massachusetts' health-care community and provide a model for other parts of the nation. Several months ago, the health insurer pledged $50 million in seed money to fund an E-health collaborative that Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney says will serve as the model for getting the majority of the state's health-care providers and hospitals to use electronic-health-record systems within the next five years--about five years ahead of President Bush's E-health records agenda.
Ascenzo's role in the collaborative was to assess the merits of the business case, determine whether mature technology existed to support the goals, estimate costs and implementation time frame, and determine how the company should proceed with other members. "None of this was done alone, but with lots of help from others in the company and community," he says. All 34 Mass E-Health members deserve credit, he says.
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts is ponying up the initial funding and some personnel to kick-start E-health records projects in three Massachusetts communities, to be selected in March. Ascenzo gives special recognition to the hospitals and health-care providers involved for their contributions -- providing staff and making drastic changes to their businesses and work processes to lead the transformation of medicine through technology. "Everyone brings something to the table," he says.
The insurer wants to improve the health of its members, and it can do so through its own disease-management and wellness programs. But teamwork among the state, health-care providers, and health insurance companies is paramount to achieving industrywide quality-of-care improvements and cost reductions, Ascenzo says. Trust, communication, and collaboration are at the core of achieving these shared goals and reaching that common good.
Ascenzo also was instrumental in Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts' providing the Massachusetts Health Data Consortium with about $800,000 in funding over the last two years to help the nonprofit coalition of health-care organizations launch a number of its own IT-driven projects, says Elliot Stone, CEO of the consortium. Those projects include MedsInfo-ED, which was unveiled in October and lets Massachusetts emergency-room physicians electronically access patients' prescription-drug claims data. "We were able to hire top-notch project managers," resulting in the successful launch of MedsInfo-ED and other projects, Stone says. By removing financial barriers to launching IT initiatives, the health-care community is free to examine other barriers, such as culture and workflow, that need to be addressed, he says.
Ascenzo's emphasis on teamwork and collaboration are vital within his company's own operations, including the management of its outsourcing relationships with vendors that handle the bulk of its internal technology activities. In his leadership role, Ascenzo has found himself tapping into communications and sales skills he honed earlier in his career as a retail manager at a drugstore chain. "Marketing is my first love," he says. Key skills Ascenzo identifies as having great value in his CIO role are listening, communicating, and making sure constituents' needs are met.
Ascenzo left retail because the weekend and late-night work -- not to mention low pay -- conflicted with his family life. From retail, Ascenzo joined insurance company Aetna Inc., where he learned computer programming and quickly ended up in project-management positions because of his previous managerial experience. Ascenzo spent 18 years at Aetna; his last position there was VP of business operations reengineering. He joined Blue Cross and Blue Shield five years ago.
"Whether dealing with family, work associates, customers, or suppliers, Ascenzo's secret for success is simple: "I don't want to be trite, but treating others the way you want to be treated in the long term is the recipe for success," he says. It also doesn't hurt to be willing to dig in and take the bold first move in solving a problem, no matter how big or small. Says Ascenzo, "I love getting dirt under my fingernails."
Editor's Note: This article first appeared at InformationWeek, a sibling publication of Insurance & Technology
Marianne Kolbasuk McGee is a former editor for InformationWeek. View Full Bio