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Former Capital Region journalist adapts communications skills to world of health care

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Former Capital Region journalist adapts communications skills to world of health care

Skinner's roots in radio broadcasting put her on path to executive role at WGY
Former Capital Region journalist adapts communications skills to world of health care
Ali Skinner, vice president of communications strategy for CDPHP, is shown at her stand-up desk.
Photographer: John Cropley

ALBANY — Health insurers have taken on a new focus in recent years: keeping their members from getting sick, rather than just paying their medical bills when they do get sick.

Former Capital Region journalist Ali Skinner went to work for the communications department of CDPHP in 2011 as that shift was underway, and found herself part of an outreach initiative that continues today, seeking to lower costs and improve members’ health.

She now heads that effort for the Albany-based health insurer; she was appointed vice president of communications strategy in August and leads a team of 15 people. It is, she said, the job she spent her late 20s and early 30s looking for: a role in which she could make an impact in a meaningful field at a great employer, and still have time to be a mother.

“I love it,” Skinner said. “I feel good about what I do here.”

Allessandra Skinner, 38, was raised in Stillwater and now lives in Milton with her husband, Chris, and daughter Ayla, 11.

PHOTO PROVIDED
Ali Skinner is shown with daughter Ayla in a family photo.PHOTO PROVIDED
Ali Skinner is shown with daughter Ayla in a family photo.

Her first job was with the National Public Radio affiliate on campus at her alma mater, SUNY Oswego; her next was at WSYR radio in Syracuse.

“I loved radio,” she recalled, but “the goal was to be a television newsperson. So then I got a job at Channel 6 as a news producer. But the plan was kind of to wiggle my way on the air, which I did, and it wasn’t what I was expecting.

“As a younger person,” Skinner explained, “you’re expecting this kind of glamorous job where your makeup and hair is done and everything looks pretty. And you were mostly covering anything from fires to storms to murders.”

Her last journalism role was at radio station WGY, where Capital Region listeners will remember her as morning news anchor with Don Weeks and Chuck Custer.

She still considers her time at WGY her second-best job ever.

LONG HOURS

And yet her professional life didn’t mesh well with the changes happening in her personal life. One episode late in her pregnancy stands out as the tipping point.

“I’ll never forget being in the middle of a blizzard and covering a triple homicide in Albany, and I was like, ‘What am I doing here?’ ” she recalled. 

As so many other journalists have done, by choice or by necessity, she moved into public relations — first for law firm Tully Rinckey, then for state Sen. Greg Ball, a downstate Republican. 

But a work-life balance continued to elude her. 

“I kept trying to find a comfort zone,” Skinner said. “But the jobs … there was just a lot of time involved in them. When I was working in the Senate, I was working almost 80 hours a week, sometimes having to sleep in my car, and it was not good for somebody with a 2- or 3-year-old.”

She applied for an opening at CDPHP and landed the last of the interviews conducted by the executive who would become her boss. He likely heard other candidates tell him about their longstanding ambition to work in health care communications. Skinner’s pitch was more straightforward: She was a hard worker looking for a better job and a better balance.

PHOTO PROVIDED
Ali Skinner is shown with husband Chris and daughter Ayla in a family photo.PHOTO PROVIDED
Ali Skinner is shown with husband Chris and daughter Ayla in a family photo.

“That day was the pumpkin-patch field trip at school and I hadn’t been to one single event of my daughter’s since she was born,” she told The Gazette in December 2019.

“He looked at me and said, ‘You cannot miss the pumpkin patch field trip.’ ”

At CDPHP she was able to strike her career-family balance and also find satisfaction in what she was doing. 

The 1,100-employee health insurer handles $2.1 billion in claims and $2.2 billion in premiums per year for 365,000 members. It has also garnered a series of best-workplace awards (including 12 straight years from the New York State Society for Human Resource Management) and maintains an upstanding internal culture, Skinner said.

“You’re encouraged to do the right thing. That hasn’t always been the case in other places I’ve worked. Top down, the leadership believes in doing the right thing.”

She added, “You walk out feeling clean every day.”

TRANSITION OF ROLE

The role of communications at CDPHP is not the same as it was 20 years ago, or even a decade ago, when Skinner joined — it has grown from rote processing claims and paying bills into an outreach effort to keep members healthy rather than heal them once they’re ill or injured. The proactive approach is less expensive and better for all involved.

“The truth of the matter is, CDPHP’s been doing it all along, just not in this organized fashion,” she said. “But now it’s become more organized. Everybody’s looking at it as a competitive advantage. But we have to do it — only 20 percent of your health is determined by the care you receive; 80 percent is determined by things like genetics, your eating habits, lifestyle, social determinants that could be your housing, your education, your living conditions.

“So the health plans find themselves in this very interesting territory where we are tackling things like housing and food insecurity, because that’s what’s going to make our members healthy,” she added. “We do better when our members are healthier.”

More from Outlook 2020

Skinner and her department also are involved in the branding and image-building that has long been a staple of the public relations business. There is still a need for that, as health care and health insurance are quite expensive, and growing more expensive at a rate far beyond that of inflation. Health insurers are not universally loved as a result.

“We do have to deal with occasional bad news, whether that be hospital negotiations [or] drug pricing,” she said. “Everybody wants the latest and greatest thing, whether it be technology or medicine, and the system can’t sustain that.

“We want to give everybody what they need to be healthy. The hard part is figuring out how to make that sustainable. It’s what we’re doing every day.”

THE JOB

The work of Skinner’s team is greatly simplified by advances in technology that allow instant and direct digital contact between insurer and member. It is considerably complicated by all the regulations facing health insurers. CDPHP can’t just send out text alerts to everybody, for example — only to members who have opted in.

But the potential for better health management is real and is being realized, Skinner said.

“The communications side of things has evolved so significantly in even the time that I’ve been here,” she said.

“It used to be that you see a member is prediabetic or has high cholesterol, and you send them a letter and you hope they engage with you. That does not happen anymore. We do what we call member journeys.”

A journey is a personalized care strategy based on all the factors facing that one member.

“Based on all those preferences, we can customize communications,” she said. “And we can measure them. We can know instantly if they worked.

“Ali Skinner misses a mammogram and then we are able to reach out to her in many, many different ways to make sure she knows it, and we can see if she schedules it. Then we can see if she gets it.”

The mechanics of all this go back to Skinner’s roots in journalism, where she learned to be a storyteller, to make large or complicated matters understandable to her audience. “Health insurance is so complicated, and that’s not OK,” she said. “Our job is to make it easier.”

That’s still done with words, though not in a strictly journalistic style.

“I’m in charge of the written and spoken and inferred word” at CDPHP, she said, but she also leads advertising, corporate communications, public relations, internal communications and government relations for CDPHP.

So by necessity, Skinner now has people who do a lot of the writing for her.

“I would like to think that I touch 50, 60 percent of everything,” she said, “but we have really good editors here. I hire people and I trust them. I always hire people that are smarter than I am. I have never been afraid of that. ... I want you to want my job.”

HOME LIFE

Daughter Ayla is a competitive gymnast, and much of the family’s home life revolves around her schedule. 

“We’re a busy family,” Skinner said. “We stay very active — I attend a lot of gymnastic meets. That’s a lot of fun for me. I really enjoy watching her compete.”

Skiing on Gore Mountain and boating on Saratoga Lake are favorite uses of their winter and summer leisure time.

PHOTO PROVIDED
Ali Skinner is shown with husband Chris and daughter Ayla in a family photo.PHOTO PROVIDED
Ali Skinner is shown with husband Chris and daughter Ayla in a family photo.

One constant, whatever the season: Their pets. 

“We have a ton of animals,” Skinner said. “My husband and I both love animals, and then you have a kid and nobody can say no. So a lot of our time is spent taking care of animals.”

The pack/flock/school numbers three dogs, three cats, two birds and about 50 fish.

“I would like to have chickens, but I have a little selling to do at home,” she added.

THE FUTURE

Skinner expects CDPHP to continue to evolve and her role to evolve with it. The health insurance industry is like a three-dimensional chessboard with state and federal regulators changing the rules behind a curtain as technology changes, costs rise and providers seek higher reimbursements.

“As each legislative session comes up, we are looking at all the different proposals that are out there and trying to assess what the impact is going to be on us, and what it’s going to be on our members,” Skinner said.

“And there’s a lot of unintended consequences that happen. They sound good off the rip, they’re well-intentioned often. But they’ll have unintended consequences.”

More from Outlook 2020

On top of all that, the insured public is seeking a more user-friendly experience from health insurers.

“Health care and health insurance has historically not been member-friendly,” Skinner said. “It’s not Amazon. And consumers are demanding the Amazon experience. They want what they want and they want it now. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do to be like that.”

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