Dr. Wernert Brings Refreshed Vision to FSSA

When Dr. John Wernert was appointed secretary of Indiana’s Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA) early last summer, he was the first physician to assume the role since the Indiana General Assembly established the agency in 1991. Dr. Wernert was chosen for the role by Governor Mike Pence to help guide the agency and the rollout of several key initiatives, including the launch of the Healthy Indiana Plan 2.0 (HIP 2.0), which began enrollment earlier this year.

A graduate of the University of Louisville School of Medicine, Dr. Wernert has a history rooted in social service, particularly to Hoosiers of vulnerable backgrounds and low economic status. As a board-certified adult psychiatrist, Dr. Wernert has spent the better part of the past three decades leading primary care efforts for several health systems and health care organizations throughout the state, particularly in the field of geriatric care.

And in June 2014, when Gov. Pence’s office called Dr. Wernert to offer him the position of FSSA secretary, he was enthusiastic about the opportunity. In Gov. Pence’s words, the role required a clinician, someone who knew providers well and could engage with hospitals, nursing homes, health centers and other stakeholders. Being a mental health professional also means Dr. Wernert has a particularly keen and foundational perspective on the populations the FSSA serves, which he feels has been an added benefit in his role as secretary.

As Secretary, Dr. Wernert leads one of the state’s largest agency, providing essential health care and social service funds to thousands of providers and over a million beneficiaries throughout the state. When Dr. Wernert assumed his role last summer, he didn’t waste any time. He started immediately on improving efficiency within the agencies, ensuring each division works together toward common goals.

“We’re not here to try and make money,” said Dr. Wernert. “We’re here to ensure we use our funds efficiently. But we do that in partnership with the providers, and, as a result, we’re going to get some amazing things done here.”

Dr. Wernert also has a vision for improving how the agency and, by extension, the state measures its success. His goal is to ensure the agency is actually helping people in need improve their health status and incentivizing individuals to take preventive care. It’s, therefore, more about the metrics of how the agency can improve Hoosiers’ lives, rather than just the total numbers.

Dr. Wernert also spent the first six months of his appointment traveling the state, meeting with providers on the front lines to try and improve the stigma surrounding Medicaid and pushing for a model of consumer-directed health care – a model that allows patients the ability to control and manage their own health care dollars while also receiving assistance from the state to pay for medical services. In particular, he began work on making HIP 2.0 – Indiana’s new, affordable, consumer-directed health insurance program providing coverage for qualified, low-income Hoosiers – a reality.

In preparation for HIP 2.0, Dr. Wernert and his team held regular meetings for six months prior to the rollout and engaged stakeholders, including physicians and hospitals, throughout the state to ensure proper awareness and education occurred at all levels. He began engaging groups like the Indiana Hospital Association to assist with submission of the federal expansion waivers and establishing sustainable funding for the program. And, while negotiations with the federal governent stalled the launch of the program until February 2015, the agency had built strong support across the state and was well-prepared for implementation. Since Jan. 27:

  • Nearly 467,000 individuals have completed HIP 2.0 applications.
  • More than 335,000 individuals are now covered under HIP 2.0, of which 155,000 are newly eligible under the coverage expansion.
  • Sixty-eight percent of those fully enrolled are participating in the HIP Plus program (meaning they are opting to pay monthly contributions into their POWER accounts so they can have vision and dental benefits and avoid co-pays).
  • Since HIP 2.0 pays providers Medicare rates instead of traditionally lower Medicaid rates, more than 2,600 providers have joined or rejoined Medicaid, which greatly helps improve access for patients.

Over the past year, FSSA has been breaking down long-standing barriers that previously limited the profitability of telemedicine. Dr. Wernert has also been a heavy supporter of tuition reimbursement and scholarship programs for physicians in the state. He supports expanding medical residency opportunities in Indiana and streamlining existing programs to ensure there are enough attractive residencies throughout the state to keep medical school students in Indiana after graduation.

“Half of our graduates go to school in Indiana and leave to go help other states,” said Dr. Wernert. “We need to build incentive programs to keep our physicians from incurring $300,000 in debt and keep them here in Indiana. And, most importantly, we need to encourage them to go into rural areas.”

And Dr. Wernert is continuing to do innovative things to bring behavioral health to the front lines of health care.

For example, and as an exclusive to Harmony, Dr. Wernert has unveiled a partnership between the State and Community Health Network to open a new neuro-diagnostic institute and advanced treatment center to be built in Central Indiana. The institute, which is currently in the feasibility research stage of the project, will seek to align the state’s network of six mental health facilities and other elements of the public behavioral health system into a comprehensive, integrated network.

The ultimate goal of the institute is to deliver expert neuro-diagnostic evaluation and treatment for patients upon their arrival and to move them more efficiently into the most appropriate treatment settings within the state mental health system. Once developed, this center would act as the flagship facility within the system.

It’s clear the FSSA, with Dr. Wernert, a clinician, at its helm, is actively working to improve the social service and health care system for millions of Indiana’s citizens. As a result, Indiana’s communities will be healthier and hospitals will benefit from the strong partnership we have with Dr. Wernert and his leadership team.