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In The News

One-on-One with Dr. Martin Hickey

Albuquerque Journal
By Ellen Marks, Journal Assistant Business Editor

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Martin Hickey has a secret weapon, and it has a special spot in his Uptown office.

“See that little rabbit sitting on the sofa?,” he said. “You know what that is? It’s not because I cuddle up to it every afternoon. For Christmas, I gave everyone on the senior team a rabbit because we pull rabbits out of the hat.”

There is no question that Hickey has been in need of rabbits lately.

Hickey, a doctor who has long been immersed in the world of health care insurance, headed the New Mexico Health Connections co-op until recently, when he took over a new for-profit insurer, True Health New Mexico. That entity is a subsidiary of Evolent Health.

Health Connections, one of the few remaining co-ops set up under the Affordable Care Act, had dire financial problems under Hickey’s purview, and the board of directors resigned last year in an attempt to get the state to take control of the company.

That did not happen, and Health Connections now has a new head following Hickey’s departure to oversee True Health. He said the co-op’s future is now brighter, due to Evolent’s $10 million acquisition of Health Connections’ commercial customers.

Hickey sees the move as part of his longtime commitment to physician-led health care under a model that emphasizes prevention as a way to cut medical costs.

He sees his long career as an arc that started with his studies in medical anthropology, traveling to India, Nepal and an island in the Marianas in the western Pacific to research the relationship between patients and healers. He ended up spending seven years with the Indian Health Service, working with Navajos in Kayenta at the edge of Monument Valley in Arizona.

It was love at first sight, regarding both the work dealing with public health and the beauty of the area.

“I used to spend 40 days a year, almost, on the (Colorado) river rafting or backpacking,” he said.

“I’m so upset about the Bears Ears and the Escalante because that’s so much of what I did,” said Hickey, referring to the Trump administration’s decision last year to shrink both national monuments in Utah.

Hickey’s work on the reservation won a bit of unwanted acclaim, he said, after he treated Chevy Chase for a fall while the actor was shooting one of the “Vacation” movies in the area.

Hickey said as a young doctor, he let Chase talk him into a healthy supply of Valium, only to see Chase a year later on the “Tonight Show” talking about his addiction problems and how it all started when a doctor at a Navajo clinic prescribed too many drugs.

Chase didn’t refer to Hickey by name, but Hickey knew just who the actor was talking about.

“He blamed me for starting him on his drug addiction,” Hickey said. “That’s my funniest story.”

What do you do in your free time?
A. Well, I’m so excited about today… it’s snowing in Telluride. … And that’s where I’ve done most of my skiiing in my adult life. And I snowboard now because my kids taught me … And if Santa Fe’s open. I’ve got, you know, the senior pass and I’ll do that. (Also) photography, and then just the outdoors. When I left Lovelace … I said I’m going to take a year off and I also bought an Airstream trailer. My wife, I don’t think, has ever quite forgiven me, but I was like, “I’m out of here.”

Where did you go?
My favorite part of the U.S. … it’s so much ingrained because of being in the Navajo (region); southwestern, eastern Utah, Zion, Escalante, I could tell you about any canyon there – where to put your tent, trailer or whatever. … Really, the outdoors is my life.

What’s your favorite spot?
A. It’s a place called Death Hollow in the Escalante … not necessarily the name, but the beauty of that canyon. If you were blindfolded and dropped into it, you would say, “Where did this come from?” It’s slickrock, water. … curved walls going up three, four, 500 feet, lots of greenery because of the creek … lots of poison ivy in some places, but it’s spectacular. That, and the other favorite place is on my seat rowing my raft down anywhere.

Most embarrassing moment?
Where do I start? Back in the day, I used to do a lot of speaking nationally … So I was on the speaker’s circuit a fair amount, and they hook you up to mics. Yeah, it happened. I went to the bathroom with the mike on. About 200 people in the room …

What would you say your weakness is?

This job in particular has taught me so much. Just things happen, and you have to deal with them and actually if you become reflective instead of reactive … I would say if I had a weakness, I could be reactive without thinking a situation fully through before taking action on it. But there’s just been so many things, and so it’s kind of like, well, get the hat. There’s a rabbit in there somewhere, and you know we’ll figure it out.

What is something that no one knows about you?
I’m pretty much a heart-on-the-sleeve guy. What I’m surprised at is that people take me as seriously as they do when I don’t.

You mean you’re emotional? Give me an example.
Emotional. People know that my mind is cranking or something upset me, and I’ll just walk down the hall at 10 miles an hour … and no one can keep up with me … or when things are great, I’ll go, “Yes!” (pumps his fist) And I always tell my staff part of your job is to up-manage me. Usually, I’m kind of like the weather here. If I’m upset, it will change pretty quickly, so time yourself, but you know where I’m coming from. I’m not running with an agenda or play-acting. I love everyone, and I try and take things to a level where people can really understand, but I do get carried away. In my head, it’s really fascinating, wouldn’t it be in yours? How come you don’t get it?

Describe yourself in three words.
Passionate, persistent and, I like to think, pliable.

Favorite food?
Stuffed, baked lobster. My wife’s influence. She’s from Boston.

Favorite books?
This is kind of an obtuse one. Michael Lewis who wrote … “The Undoing Project.” It has changed the way I make decisions. Totally.

Authors – the guy who wrote “Hamilton,” Ron Chernow? I’m now reading “Grant.” I really like history – as my kids say, “You just like big white dudes,” and I say, “No, it’s just how do people under pressure react and their foibles.” … And then I have to confess to Lee Child. Every now and then, you’ve got to have a junk book.

THE BASICS

AGE: 69; born in Rockford, Ill.

EDUCATION: Johns Hopkins University, bachelor’s degree in social and behavioral sciences; Rutgers University, graduate program anthropology and pre-med courses; Rush Medical College, M.D., and extra year for graduate fellowship in medical anthropology; University of Rochester, Strong Memorial Hospital, three-year primary care internal medicine residency; University of Wisconsin, master’s administrative medicine in first class of Executive Program for Physicians.

FAMILY: Married to Mary Cunnane, M.D., Oct. 6, 1982, for 35 years; two children, Ryan and Connor.

CURRENT JOB TITLE: CEO, True Health New Mexico

RECENT JOB HISTORY: New Mexico Health Connections, CEO, 2012-17; managing director, Navigant Consulting, 2010-12; Alegent Health, Omaha, Neb., chief accountable care officer, 2010, president and CEO of Alegent Health Clinic, 2008-10; Excellus Blue Cross Blue Shield, Rochester, N.Y., senior vice president, 2005-2008.

OUTSIDE ORGANIZATIONS: Board member of Lovelace Clinic Foundation, New Mexico High Risk Pool, Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and beWellnm; member of Rethink Healthcare initiative.

DID YOU KNOW

  • Hickey considers himself a “recovering academic.” He spent six years teaching medical economics and general medicine at the University of New Mexico, winning tenure before returning to the private sector.
  • Hickey’s mother was an Illinois state senator. Hickey once considered running in New Mexico until he spent long hours waiting to testify before a standing committee on health care matters. “And I just said, ‘Wow, spending a lot of time doing that, I just don’t know if I have the energy.’”