Brenner leaves UnitedHealth Group to return to primary care

Joseph Burns

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Joseph Burns (@jburns18), a Massachusetts-based independent journalist, is AHCJ’s topic leader on health insurance. He welcomes questions and suggestions on insurance resources and tip sheets at joseph@healthjournalism.org.

Jeffrey C. Brenner, M.D.

Image courtesy John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur FoundationJeffrey C. Brenner, M.D.

One of the nation’s most innovative physicians is leaving UnitedHealth Group to start a primary care practice in New Jersey. Jeffrey Brenner, M.D, is returning to primary care after more than three years as a senior vice president at the nation’s largest health insurer, where he launched programs in some 14 cities to provide housing and other services for UHC’s neediest members.

Many of us have covered the work Brenner has done in pioneering new models of care for patients known as high utilizers, super users or frequent fliers. They are the 5 percent of patients who account for at least 50 percent or more of all health care spending. Included in this cohort was the top 1 percent of Americans whose health care costs accounted for about 22 percent of total health care spending nationwide. In comparison, the bottom 50 percent accounted for only about 3 percent, according to 2019 report, Medical Expenditure Panel Survey, by the federal Agency for Health Care Research and Quality.

Brenner’s work at the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers drew nationwide attention in 2011 when Atul Gawande, MD, wrote about his efforts in The New Yorker, “The Hot Spotters: Can we lower medical costs by giving the neediest patients better care?” Later that year, Gawande narrated a Frontline video based on that article.

In 2013, Brenner won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, as we reported here.

In a health care system built to provide episodic care, high-user patients are among the most difficult to treat because they need much more than an annual physical exam or a screening test. Brenner advocated for that approach in his work, and UnitedHealthcare recognized its importance when hiring him in February 2017.

In his role as Minneapolis-based UnitedHealth’s senior vice president for integrated health and social services, he was responsible for introducing new models of care to the physicians and hospitals in the UnitedHealthcare’s network. As Harold Brubaker reported for The Philadelphia Inquirer in February, Brenner was instrumental in helping UnitedHealth set a goal for this year to provide housing for more than 350 Medicaid members with extreme social, medical, and behavioral complexities. And here’s why: “UnitedHealth has not conducted a full-scale scientific study of the program’s results yet, but it gave an example in a presentation of a patient who was costing an average $20,400 a month before the insurer intervened,” Brubaker reported. “Now, that patient has an average monthly medical cost of $400, excluding housing expenses.”

Now, after three-plus years introducing innovative models of care for the nation’s largest health insurer, Brenner plans to return to his roots as a family physician sometime this fall. He plans to open a primary care clinic with Kathleen Stillo, MBA, a business partner who worked with him both in Camden and for UnitedHealth Group, where she was president and chief operating officer for clinical redesign.

“I’m going to do a primary care startup,” he said during a telephone interview Wednesday. “I’m a family doc, and my true love has always been primary care.” For the past few days, he’s been looking for office space in South Jersey.

Over the past few months, UnitedHealth had Brenner and Stillo managing a pandemic hotel in Secaucus, N.J., for patients infected with SARS-CoV-2. Patients there could be separated from family members to help stop the spread of the deadly virus.

“In that setting, it was really nice to be back close to frontline care again,” Brenner said.

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