Michael A. Stocker, MD, MPH

2014 Recipient, Health Care Leadership Award

The United Hospital Fund’s Health Care Leadership Award recognizes extraordinary personal leadership to improve health and health care in New York. This year the Fund is pleased to present the award to Michael A. Stocker, MD, MPH, former chairman of the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation and former president and CEO of Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield.

Curiosity and vision have been two of the major motivators over the course of Michael Stocker’s wide-ranging career. Those, and a talent for uncovering and channeling the talents and dedication of others, have taken him from family practice through the transformation of the health insurance industry and on to leadership in the largest public health care system in the nation.

“I always liked working with groups of people to solve problems, and knew I would end up someplace in management,” Mike says of the years after his training and the Army Medical Corps. Equity and access were the themes of the era—the late 1960s—he notes, and those ideals pushed him to move away from his initial field, internal medicine. “I was involved with the Physicians National House Staff Association when it was formed, and became involved with the politics and promise of family practice, and that carried over to working at Cook County,” Chicago’s famed public hospital, where he became program director of the family practice residency. A position at Anchor, a staff-model health maintenance organization, followed; seeing the weakness of that model—“it was much too expensive”—presaged the move that, in 1985, would bring Mike to New York and, ultimately, a central role in one of the biggest changes in American health care.

“Becoming medical director and then the general manager at U.S. Healthcare, a startup then, was an opportunity to do something I really liked and that I thought was helpful,” he says. “I had a fundamental belief that managed care could make the use and provision of services more rational.” In the early ’90s Mike moved on to CIGNA Health Plans as president, and then to Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield as president and chief executive officer. “It was my idea of the perfect job. It was big in scale, with big problems—but it was a great brand and I knew I could fix it.”

The country’s largest insurer just years before, Empire needed a strong infusion of reorganization and stability. It took seven years but Mike Stocker successfully led it through the minefield of converting from not-for-profit to publicly traded status, creating a leaner, more efficient and competitive business in the process, and further signaling the embrace of managed care by the insurance industry. Still, one of the things that Mike is proudest of, he says, is the improved infrastructure that allowed the Empire team to rebound quickly after the September 11 attacks.

When Empire’s parent company later merged with WellPoint, Mike stayed on as regional president and CEO, and then served as a consultant until retiring in 2007. That retirement didn’t last long. Hearing that New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation chairman Charlyn Goins was about to step down, Mike had another “aha!” moment. “It was an interesting mix of people and a great mission, one that’s fundamental to the place the city has carved out for itself.”

In the five years that followed, Mike advised and supported HHC’s management team as they dealt with the perpetual challenges of infrastructure, staffing, and money—and a new focus on the critical areas of corporate compliance, internal audits, and procurement. Mike’s leadership, says then-president and CEO Alan Aviles, made “wise and strategic use” of the chairmanship and made him “a true partner” in furthering HHC’s critical mission. Other colleagues cite his “unshakable integrity,” “forward-thinking” and “luminous” intelligence, and ability to motivate staff “to reach further than we thought possible”—along with his personal warmth and humor. Always respectful of varying opinions and asking the right questions, they say, Mike helped HHC enhance the quality and safety of its services and, in the context of national health reform, prepare to be seen as “providers of choice” as fewer New Yorkers go uninsured.

Ostensibly retired again, Mike continues to apply his strengths to active service on the boards of Montefiore Medical Center, the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health, FAIR Health, and, not least, the United Hospital Fund. What’s ahead is largely an unknown—although as a proud alumnus he’s looking forward to taking his high-school-age son to a Notre Dame football game this year. What’s behind, and will continue, is an ongoing legacy of accomplishment by one of the most respected leaders in health care, a true visionary and problem-solver.

Mike is the first to say he never thinks in terms of “legacy.” But that is exactly what his endless curiosity, energies, and talents have helped him create. Tonight, on behalf of the health care community and the people it serves, the United Hospital Fund is delighted to present Dr. Michael Stocker with the Health Care Leadership Award in recognition of, and thanks for, the significant difference he has made in New Yorkers’ lives.

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