HHS secretary Alex Azar hires Indy insurance exec in key advisory role

James Parker, the top executive of Indianapolis-based health insurer MDwise and a former executive at Anthem Inc., has been hired to help the federal government transform the health insurance industry.

Parker was named Wednesday as senior advisor to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. His title will be Director of the Office of Health Reform at HHS.

In his new role, Parker will be responsible for addressing the cost and availability of health insurance, Azar said in an announcement.

“Jim Parker has spent his life working in the private sector to provide Americans access to quality, affordable health insurance,” Azar said. “His knowledge and expertise will be vital to our work at HHS to ensure that Americans have access to insurance that meets their needs.”

The announcement came as Azar, former top executive for Indianapolis-drugmaker Eli Lilly's US operations, was hospitalized for the second time this week to treat a painful bowel condition called diverticulitis.

Azar had been admitted to St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis on Sunday, where he remained for one night. On Monday, after being discharged, he tweeted: “I'm grateful for the incredible doctors & nurses who provided me with excellent care during my one-night stay at @StVincentIN. Also thankful for my wife, who insisted that I call my primary care doctor when I wasn't feeling well. Glad to be back at work for the American people.”

On Wednesday, Azar was readmitted for additional treatment and observation. Health and Human Services Department spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley said Azar "remains fully engaged with the responsibilities of his job" and is in regular contact with his leadership team. The announcement did not say whether Azar was readmitted to St. Vincent or to another hospital.

Diverticulitis is an inflammation or infection of small pouches that bulge outward through the colon. Such pouches — called diverticula — are common among older adults. They often don't produce any symptoms unless they become inflamed or infected. Azar is 50.

Parker has been president and CEO of MDwise since March of 2017. The insurer serves predominantly low-income customers. Of its total membership of 375,000, more than 90 percent are covered under Medicaid plans.

MDwise, which is based on Madison Avenue, just south of downtown, has been struggling in recent years. It lost $60 million and cut about 20 percent of its workforce in 2016, and was recently bought by Michigan-based McLaren Health Care. It was previously owned 50-50 by Indiana University Health and Marion County Health and Hospital Corp.

Parker previously worked for four years as president and CEO of IU Health Plans, a provider-sponsored health plan associated with IU Health. Before that, he spent 20 years with Anthem Inc. in several senior leadership roles, including chief of staff to the president and CEO.

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