Westmont Magazine Theology and Managed Care
Twice Leeba Lessin ’79 thought she was leaving the health care industry, but twice she has returned. Since 1986 when she started a health-maintenance organization (HMO) in Santa Barbara, she has played a leading role in a managed care company.
After graduating from Westmont, she worked as associate executive director of the Santa Barbara Medical Society and met many local physicians. Convinced that health care wasn’t the right place for her, she left to earn an M.B.A. at the University of Washington.
Just before she graduated, a group of Santa Barbara doctors asked her to help set up a new HMO. They were convinced that health care was essentially local and that a smaller plan could succeed.
Despite her decision to leave the industry, Leeba agreed to take on this challenge. She saw it as a way to return to Santa Barbara, where she had been very involved with Santa Barbara Community Church.
“With my lack of experience, I certainly wasn’t qualified on paper,” Leeba reflects. “But by 1986, I was president of Freedom Plan.” This company combined a health plan and a delivery system.
But the changing economics in health care made it difficult for the small organization to compete, and in 1992 they sold the health plan to PacifiCare. The physician group, renamed Monarch Health Systems, continued as a delivery system for PacifiCare, and Leeba headed the company until 1994.
Once again, Leeba left to return to school. This time she moved to Los Angeles, Calif., and enrolled at Fuller Theological Seminary to complete a master’s degree in theology and become better prepared for lay ministry. “My own spiritual life is most enriched when my mind is fully engaged,” she explains.
Then PacifiCare asked her to take a national position (based in Orange County) as vice president for provider delivery systems. She agreed and traveled around the country helping management teams develop good relationships with physician groups.
Meanwhile, she became more active at the church she attended, Whittier Plymouth Congregational.
When PacifiCare offered her a position as president of Northern California operations a year ago, she struggled with the decision because it required a move to San Francisco and she was committed to the Whittier church. She finally accepted, but returned to Los Angeles every weekend. She has now decided to live in San Francisco full time.
Leeba deplores the political and media rhetoric surrounding HMOs. “Managed care is certainly not perfect, but it is helping to do for American health care what the previous system couldn’t,” she contends. “Costs were rising too quickly, and there was a lot of waste. Managed care offers a rational, efficient way to optimize medical care for the country as a whole. Some physicians may make less money, and some patients may receive fewer benefits, but generally people are getting better care.”
HMOs rank above tobacco companies but below gun manufacturers as one of the least trusted industries in the country. Leeba says she is often asked how she can be a Christian and work in managed care. “People think we sit around looking for ways to avoid paying for medical services,” she notes. “In fact, there is a limited amount of money available, and we have to manage it responsibly.”
In Leeba’s opinion, the real issue is helping average Americans afford basic care, and she believes HMOs do this. “Scripture does stress helping the poor and disenfranchised.”
Leeba recently joined the Westmont Board of Advisors, a group of leading business people who advise the college on issues ranging from curriculum to fund raising.
“Westmont influenced my spiritual formation and my world view, and I find other alums had the same experience,” she notes. “There’s a thread that ties us together. Paradoxically, Westmont was both a challenging and a safe place to think. That’s a great legacy, and I want to see it continue.”