Former Highmark West Virginia president Fred Earley won’t remain retired for long.
After retiring from his position at the state’s largest health insurer in November, Earley will take on the role of special counsel at Bowles Rice at the start of 2017. The position will focus on healthcare practice and government relations for the law firm’s clients, which include various hospitals, health maintenance organizations, physicians and long-term care facilities.
“I think helping West Virginia continue to grow and develop is really important to me,” Earley said. “Hopefully this will be a little different of a pace from being in charge of a health insurance company, but I’ll still be able to contribute in a meaningful way.”
Tom Heywood, managing partner at Bowles Rice, said Earley is “a very known quantity” at the statehouse and that he will maintain a presence there as special counsel.
“We really see [Earley’s] expertise and knowledge as being invaluable for our clients and for the state of West Virginia in navigating those waters in the years ahead,” Heywood said. “I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a task force or commission relating to insurance or healthcare he hasn’t been a part of.”
Earley said he will stay involved with Highmark, a Bowles Rice client, in some capacity as new president James Fawcett adjusts to the position. Highmark serves approximately 290,000 customers in all 55 counties.
Earley’s tenure as Highmark president, which began in July 2009, saw major changes in the healthcare marketplace with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and the expansion of the state’s Medicaid program.
West Virginia’s number of uninsured residents dropped by more than half between 2013 and 2015, according to survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau, which Earley called “a great achievement.” Around six percent of the state’s population remains uninsured.
However, Earley cites rising costs in the individual insurance market as the key issue for the country going forward.
“We are at a point where we are struggling with the affordability of things,” he said. “Big questions have risen around the sustainability of the insurance market.”
In West Virginia specifically, Earley said keeping small rural hospitals afloat should be a focus as the government programs reimbursing them face budgetary issues. He added that the state’s population is lagging behind in healthy living, which increases the burden of both the providers and patients.
West Virginia was one of four states to have an obesity prevalence greater than 35 percent, according to a 2015 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“It’s always challenging to get people to take better care of themselves,” Earley said. “It’s not something you can turn around overnight. It’s almost a generational initiative, quite frankly.”
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