Profile: Elliott fits the ‘Bill’ to lead MED Group forward

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Bill Elliott has guided organizations in various sectors of healthcare in his 30-year career, but navigating the home medical equipment field may prove to be his biggest challenge yet. Based on his tireless approach over the past few months, however, he appears to be more than ready for the job.
The new MED Group captain takes the helm at a time of tremendous uncertainty in the HME industry, led by Medicare reimbursement cuts, a six-year consumer price index freeze and national competitive bidding for durable medical equipment. The uncompromising provisions of the Medicare Modernization Act are forcing HME companies to rethink, restructure and refine their operations and they’re looking to organizations like the Lubbock, Texas-based MED Group for guidance.
It’s an imposing orientation to be sure, but Elliott is no stranger to adversity in the healthcare industry. In the medical/surgical domain where Elliott honed his skills, 1984 is still considered to be the bellwether year, when diagnosis-related groups, or DRGs, permanently altered the healthcare landscape.
“When I joined (Irving, Texas-based hospital purchasing cooperative) VHA that year, hospitals were undergoing a dramatic cultural and business reformation,” Elliott said. “(MMA) is as steep a climb as that, maybe even more so because the changes will come exponentially faster.”
Introduced as the new MED president at Medtrade 2004, Elliott has wasted no time immersing himself in the industry and its issues. He has followed an exhaustive schedule, crisscrossing the country meeting members and listening to their concerns. At the time of this interview in early March, Elliott figured he had shaken hands with at least half of MED’s 200 members.
“Getting to know the membership and their issues has been at the top of my priority list,” he said. “I see our task at MED as pretty simple – in the HME market there will be winners and losers. My role is to make sure our members are among the winners.”
After receiving bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Illinois-Springfield in psychology and human development counseling in the mid-1970s, Elliott spent the first part of his career in hospital administration before joining VHA as vice president of business development. During his 12-year stint at the group purchasing organization, he worked his way up to senior vice president of operations and supply chain management before becoming president of Orange, Calif.-based med/surg and pharmaceutical distributor Bergen Brunswig in 1996. In 2000 he served as CEO of e-commerce start-up Embion and two years later joined San Diego-based medical device manufacturer Quidel as executive vice president.
“When we started the search for my replacement, we wanted someone with extensive experience and Bill certainly has a well-rounded background,” said Elliott’s predecessor David Miller, who remains involved with MED as board chairman. “His most significant area of experience is with VHA’s purchasing department (now known as Novation), handling $7 billion in contracts. He’s been a provider, distributor and manufacturer and blends all that experience with an innate, God-given intuition on how to treat people. While it’s still early, I can confidently say he’s cut from MED cloth.”
Purchasing is still MED’s core business and Elliott plans to use his buying group experience “to find value for members through vendor relationships,” he said. Another key role is enhancing business process improvement through educational programs like MED University and leveraging technology, databases and professional training to help fortify members’ status as independents. Business development – especially at the managed care level – is also on Elliott’s project list.
“With competitive bidding on the horizon, this is especially relevant,” he said. “By working at the alliance, supplier and provider levels, I understand all sides of the vendor equation. I am now taking those lessons and applying them to the HME market.”
Mergers and acquisitions are a natural consequence of a maturing industry and consolidation of independents is an unavoidable situation, Elliott concedes. Yet as the DRG uproar caused a wave of hospital mergers in the 1980s and ‘90s, GPOs like VHA weathered the storm and emerged even stronger. He fervently believes MED will do the same.
“Consolidation is of some concern, but I recognize the dynamic and still believe there is a solid place in the industry for independents who operate cost effectively and provide great service,” he said. “We’ll see more consolidation and there will be different forms of it – not just acquisitions by large chains. And based on what I saw on the hospital side, not all mergers succeed.”
While Elliott’s previous positions exposed him to the HME industry, he said the past few months have been especially revelatory in gaining an understanding and appreciation for those who represent it.
“The people I’ve worked with have stirred my heart,” he said. “They have passion for what they do and compassion for who they work for. They are strong entrepreneurs and hopefully the business experience I’ve had can help them expand on that.”