Smooth turnover vowed at insurer

Right-hand man will take helm from Baker at Harvard Pilgrim

By Robert Weisman
Globe Staff / July 9, 2009
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Board members at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care had long known their chief executive, Charles D. Baker, was weighing a run for governor, so they had prepared a transition plan in the event of his departure. Yesterday, they put it into action, naming chief operating officer Bruce Bullen as interim chief executive of the state’s second-largest health insurer.

The move will take effect at the end of next week, when Baker, 52, leaves the company to begin putting together his campaign.

Bullen, 62, was recruited to join Harvard Pilgrim in 1999, two months after Baker arrived. He has been part of the management team that led the Wellesley-based insurer into and out of state receivership and through a turnaround that has made it profitable in the midst of an economic downturn. Harvard Pilgrim was recently cited by the J.D. Power and Associates research firm as having the highest member satisfaction of any commercial health plan in New England.

“My charge here is to keep doing what we’re doing,’’ Bullen said in an interview yesterday, noting that the company added 25,000 new members at the start of July. “We’re continuing to grow, and we’re continuing to introduce new products for our customers.’’

It’s not certain, however, that Bullen will remain at the helm of Harvard Pilgrim, which has 1,100 employees and 1,080,000 members in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. Its directors have formed a committee to launch a search for a permanent chief executive that is expected to include internal and external candidates. No timetable has been set for the search.

Asked whether he planned to be a candidate, Bullen said, “It’s something I have under active consideration, and it’s likely.’’

James Roosevelt Jr., chief executive of rival Tufts Health Plan in Watertown, said he expects Bullen will bring continuity to the transition, but will focus more on operational issues.

“Bruce has a long history with Charlie [Baker] and has been part of the same strategic approach, so I expect that approach will continue,’’ Roosevelt said. “They’ll continue to be a strong competitor.’’

Industry watchers said it will be hard for any successor to match Baker’s charismatic leadership style, but gave Bullen high marks as a seasoned executive who understands healthcare.

“Bruce is a very talented person with institutional and analytical skills,’’ said Ellen Lutch Bender, president of the Boston healthcare consulting firm Bender Strategies. “He was handpicked by Charlie to come over to Harvard Pilgrim. Is Bruce an extension of Charlie’s leadership? Yes.’’

Bullen has an undergraduate degree from Williams College and a master’s degree in public administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He was commissioner of the Division of Medical Assistance, a state agency responsible for running the Medicaid program known as MassHealth, before joining Harvard Pilgrim.

When he and Baker took over Harvard Pilgrim, which was formed in the mid-1990s merger of Harvard Community Health Plan and Pilgrim Health Care, the insurer faced steep financial losses stemming in part from difficulties integrating the two organizations. It entered state receivership in 2000 and emerged several months later with a plan to consolidate operations, reduce costs, and increase revenues.

“We worked very closely with Charlie Baker on the turnaround of Harvard Pilgrim, and Bruce Bullen was part of that effort,’’ said former Massachusetts attorney general Thomas Reilly, now a lawyer at the Boston firm of Cooley Manion Jones. “It wasn’t a one-man show, and I have no question that the organization will remain solid and strong.’’

While it posted a small operating loss the year after it emerged from receivership, Harvard Pilgrim has been profitable each year since 2002. It reported an operating income of $22.6 million on revenue of $2.6 billion for 2008.

Robert Weisman can be reached at