Einstein, state procurement departments and innovation: An unbeatable combination to improve the well-being of citizens

One of my favorite quotes about the importance of encouraging innovation doesn’t include the word “innovation” at all. It’s Albert Einstein’s cautionary observation: “If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.”

He’s right, of course, in so many ways. Whenever we’re trying to achieve breakthroughs, the key is often found by shaking things up and finding creative ways to tackle old problems. After all, as Einstein also once noted: “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”

State health and human services (HHS) agencies are beginning to develop creative ways to deliver services to their citizens. They are employing innovative ways of organizing their staffs, sharing data, paying providers, and measuring and improving outcomes.

I mentioned in a previous blog how procurement innovation can occur when purchasing departments work hand in hand with HHS agencies to reshape their MMIS purchases by thinking along modular lines — acquiring specific business services (rather than systems) to help manage their Medicaid programs, and leveraging commercial capabilities to gain eyes to new ideas and more competition. In essence, by buying business services instead of building their own expensive systems, states are procuring to achieve outcomes rather than to own technology. That’s the kind of innovation that directly benefits citizens.

There are other examples of this type of procurement innovation.

NASPO, for years, has provided cooperative purchasing agreements for various services and commodities for states through its ValuePoint contract vehicle. Using a state-led model, ValuePoint contracting is now available for multi-state MMIS purchasing for provider services. Optum is one of a handful of pre-qualified vendors for states to consider for this service. ValuePoint provides reduced procurement timelines for states, provides a base contract with established costs and sets robust performance standards that are established by the lead state and sourcing team.

All of these are beneficial to taxpayers, beneficiaries and providers.

But that’s still only the beginning for state purchasing departments determined to demonstrate true innovation. The opportunity exists right now for them to extend their influence and make a real contribution to their states’ efforts to further improve the well-being of their citizens. States are doing this by focusing not just on health issues, per se, but on other factors that affect quality of life. Do citizens have access to adequate food and housing? Do they have opportunities for a high-quality education? Are there employment opportunities in their neighborhood?

These factors are often referred to as social determinants of health (SDOH), a rather high-brow phrase defining a concept that should seem like common sense to all of us: a person who is well-fed, with a roof over his or her head, who is educated enough to find a good job — well, that person generally is going to be healthier than someone who is hungry, homeless and unemployed.

So how can purchasing departments help? What if they led the way in bringing together health and human services agencies, education departments and workforce development bureaus to insist that technology-related RFPs specify that all of these areas would share data and analytic capabilities? What if they also worked closely with state legal departments to craft language that would protect sensitive data and provide for the proper data access in the midst of this widespread sharing? And suppose they used their expertise to suggest changes in purchasing policies and regulations that currently act as roadblocks to effective collaboration between agencies?

Purchasing departments can and should lead these efforts. They should place themselves at the nexus where the roles of a variety of different agencies — those focused on health, human services, child welfare, education, housing, jobs, the courts and more — intersect to carry out the central and crucial roles of state government: protecting and improving the lives of citizens.

It won’t be easy. Creative and innovative purchasing departments will have to overcome years of rote RFP language and risk-averse procurement habits, as well as occasional agency turf battles and general resistance to change, to make this kind of a difference. But states across the country increasingly are talking about the reorganization of their assistance programs and processes to place their citizens at the center. Purchasing agents and procurement officers can serve as the much-needed catalyst — and become the innovators that link together these likeminded but organizationally disparate agencies.

If procurement professionals are successful, I think we would describe them as more than “innovators.” We would also consider them thoughtful, conscientious stewards of our citizens’ well-being. This is a concept not normally associated with state purchasing organizations. Suddenly, departments once concerned primarily about numbers would be associated with improving the lives of thousands of people.

Which brings me to my final Einstein quote: “Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.”

About the Author:

Tom Graves

Tom Graves
Senior Vice President at Optum

Tom Graves has been involved with the federal, state, and commercial health care markets for more than 30 years. He oversees the product and market development of Optum’s Medicaid Management Information System (MMIS) solution, Optum Medicaid Management Services. With more than 20 years in the Medicaid Fee-for-service market, managed care, pharmacy, medical management and analytics, he brings broad-based industry experience to this new approach to Medicaid enterprise systems. He has also amassed experience in federal and commercial information technology, project management and engineering. He holds a B.S. in engineering and an M.B.A. in finance.

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