Former Aetna CEO Richard Huber once joked that when he met doctors at social events he would tell them he worked in the post office.
But the tension that marked Huber’s tenure was no laughing matter for many doctors – and some said Friday they hoped his resignation would usher in a new era at the Hartford-based health care powerhouse.
“You can’t practice corporate medicine without doctors,” said Dr. Stephen Katz, president of the Connecticut State Medical Society. “I would assume that someone like [new Aetna CEO] William Donaldson would recognize he has an obligation to treat the doctors very well – certainly, with respect. And perhaps respect has been the most important ingredient that’s been missing.”
Despite the expressed goal of building a more productive relationship with the physicians in Aetna‘s vast network, Huber continued to antagonize doctors with both his words and actions at a time when managed care was coming under increasing fire on many fronts.
For example, his recent comment that “doctors want to get as much money as they can for doing as little as possible,” drew an angry response from Timothy Norbeck, executive director of the state medical society.
“He impugned the integrity of the very people he claimed he was trying to develop mutual trust and discussions with,” Norbeck said. “That certainly did not help at all – and may have hastened his downfall.”
Several doctors and advocates saw in Huber’s departure a sign that the combined pressure of the patients’ rights movement, legislative initiatives and a wave of federal lawsuits was being felt inside the walls of Aetna‘s cavernous Hartford headquarters.
“Perhaps this is a reflection of the climate in this country regarding managed health care,” said Dr. Kristen Zarfos, a surgeon at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington. “The industry is being responsive to the voice of the people.”
It wasn’t Huber’s words or style alone, however, that upset doctors in Connecticut and across the nation. As Aetna moved to keep costs in check, the company implemented policies that physicians tagged as being particularly heavyhanded.
Doctors and consumer advocates who spoke of Huber’s departure Friday said they were well aware the company still needs to hold the line on costs, but they said they hoped the company’s new management would do so within the framework of a more cooperative relationship.
“We’re not the enemy,” said Dr. Mark Gerber, an official at the Connecticut State Society of Anesthesiologists. “As soon as a managed care company realizes that and accepts that proposition, the company will do well, the physicians will do well and the patients will do well.”
Amy Wiseman, who manages the Glastonbury practice of her husband, Dr. Dana Wiseman, said she was optimistic that Huber’s departure would bring changes at Aetna.
“Aetna has a lot of lives in its hands,” Wiseman said. “We hope this will help them move toward a more helpful, caring and fair way to provide health care for all those people.”
An ironic tone was struck by Jamie Court, advocacy director at the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica, Calif. Court said Huber’s propensity for making controversial comments about doctors and patients inadvertently strengthened the case for HMO reform.
“You could not invent Richard Huber,” Court said. “His arrogance and loquaciousness and sheer remorselessness over the condition of patients makes the perfect case why we need HMO reform. This is a real loss for our movement.”