CMS CEO to retire after 15 years at the helm
by Kate Alfano, CMS Communications Coordinator
Featured in the November-December 2019 Colorado Medicine Colorado Medicine.
Alfred Gilchrist, the “fast-walking, slow-talking” CEO of the Colorado Medical Society will retire at the end of January 2020, leaving behind a legacy as a brilliant leader, strategist, team builder and advocate for patients and medicine. He achieved a striking number of extraordinary goals since he was hired at CMS in 2004, and in 20 years prior at the Texas Medical Association, and he was key to establishing the two medical societies as credible voices for physicians in the public and private sectors. In his inaugural Executive Office Update column in the December-January 2005 issue of Colorado Medicine, he credits physician leaders as the single most important ingredient to all of the successes of organized medicine. Many would argue that his ability to bring the right people together for a common good was the overarching reason for the victories described in that column and all since.
Early in his career in Colorado, in 2007, he led the charge for legislation to establish the nation’s first fair and transparent managed care contracting bill, SB07-79, the result of a mediated agreement that served as a model for how physicians and health plans can collaborate to overcome seemingly polarized positions to pass meaningful legislation.
In late 2007 and early 2008, as health care reform was on the minds and newscasts of all, he brought together a diverse group of CMS-member physicians for the Physicians’ Congress for Health Care Reform. This group met every six weeks for 18 months to develop a consensus voice for Colorado physicians on health care reform. The congress’ evaluation matrix, still referenced in present day, measures health care policy proposals against the values of the medical community. The work of the congress was incorporated into the output of the Blue Ribbon 208 Commission and Gov. Bill Ritter’s “Building Blocks for Health Care Reform” package. A critical element of the package for Colorado’s doctors was increased Medicaid reimbursement for primary care services that came directly from the recommendations of the CMS/Specialty Medicaid Reform Task Force, and represented a good-faith effort on the part of the governor to respond to physicians’ needs.
Another key achievement came in 2008 with the signing of SB08-138, the nation’s first physician profiling bill. CMS was the first medical society in the country to persuade state legislators to enact statutory protections for profiled physicians. A national model governing physician designation by health plans, the bill was the fruit of constructive dialogue between CMS and health plans. It requires plans to disclose the process and data used to designate physicians and creates appeals mechanisms for physicians who believe they have been inappropriately profiled.
2012 marked the end of the first battle for the reauthorization of the Colorado Professional Review Act, with victory achieved after an often-contentious 18-month process that involved building a coalition of health care organizations and their lobby teams to champion the effort. The Act survived an 11th-hour negotiation marathon while the sunset legislation was held hostage to a series of demands from the trial attorneys. Then again, in 2019, another victory came despite a session-long campaign by plaintiff attorneys to breach the privileged nature of professional review activities. Gilchrist and the government affairs team coordinated a strategic coalition of CMS, COPIC, the Colorado Hospital Association, and specialty and component medical societies to ensure physicians were successful.
More than just legislative accomplishments, Gilchrist championed “the new CMS,” a comprehensive package of governance and communications reforms that helped CMS evolve into a model 21st-century state medical society. While other organizations were struggling to retain members and relevance, CMS developed ways to give members ownership of the organization and increase value. The plan meant launching Central Line, a first-in-the-nation web-based virtual policy platform that engages all members in policy creation; opening nominations and voting for leadership elections to all members; creating a series of skills-based courses for leadership development; streamlining committees or workgroups to targeted and productive short-term experiences based on urgency and relevance; and redesigning face-to-face meetings for optimal collegiality and information sharing. Most recently, CMS relaunched our brand and modernized the look of all publications; chiefly, CMS.org and Colorado Medicine.
“Alfred is a brilliant strategist who cares passionately about making doctors’ practices satisfying, and making our patients’ care as good as it can be,” wrote CMS Past President Mark Laitos, MD, in his president’s letter in 2010, reflecting on Gilchrist’s first five years as CMS CEO. Gilchrist very briefly left Colorado for another position, only to be welcomed back a few months later. Laitos’ reflection at the time still rings true today. “Just as we’ve dedicated our skills and careers to taking care of our patients, he has dedicated his considerable skill and career to taking care of doctors. The doctors in Colorado have benefitted enormously by his presence.”
Laitos continued, “not only did Alfred advise and organize us very skillfully, he has also successfully mentored your CMS staff, along with a sizable corps of physicians in this organization. We are a much more savvy society now. Our physician leaders and staff learned a clear understanding of our opportunities and, more importantly, how to accomplish our goals for achieving better patient care.”
In November 2018, Gilchrist was awarded the American Medical Association’s Medical Executive Lifetime Achievement Award for his 40 years in executive leadership at CMS and TMA, with key achievements in Texas in helping the organization respond to challenges in rural health, border health, managed care and liability reforms, among many others. When accepting the lifetime achievement award, he told the audience: “We understand what this award represents. It represents thousands of volunteer physician hours. Doctors showing up time and again with the goal of making care better for patients and the communities they serve. It represents compassionate and bold physician leadership past and present. It represents the hard work, dedication and long hours of your staff. For when these three things come together through a vision, a plan, in execution and a little luck, great things can happen. And great things have happened during my career to the point where I can say from the bottom of my heart that I could not have had a more meaningful and rewarding career than going to work and fighting every day for your honorable profession.”
As Laitos said in 2010, “we’ll miss Alfred; he’s been a good friend, mentor and advisor. We thank him for his great work; CMS has accomplished much under his leadership.”
In the words of the presidents
What Alfred has accomplished in his career and especially his work at the Colorado Medical Society has been monumental. I cannot put into words the dedication he has given to our organization, tireless efforts, and truly raising CMS to high levels of respect and effectiveness in our state advocating for physicians and the patients served. His perseverance, vision and collaborative leadership style has truly inspired anyone who has had the opportunity to work with him.
— Jan Marie Kief, MD
Alfred always showed the utmost respect for the physicians of CMS and worked tirelessly to collaborate with the American Medical Association and other state and specialty societies to improve care for patients and for the profession of medicine. His influence will be felt for many years to come.
— Jeremy Lazarus, MD
Alfred Gilchrist has exemplified “5-Star” leadership on behalf of physicians and patients. His legacy will endure long past his tenure at CMS. Thanks, Alfred!
— Michael Pramenko, MD
What separates Alfred from the other CEOs I have worked with in my 46 years of being involved in CMS is his ability to be creative and think out side of the box to imagine new ways to structure our organization to better respond to the changing times we live in.
— M. Robert Yakely, MD
Alfred always said to me “politics drives the process that sets policy.” It took me three years on the CMS executive track to understand what this means, but it was very powerful once I did.
— John L. Bender, MBA, MD, FAAFP
The word that best characterizes Alfred is caring. He cares about all the people around him: his family, his staff, the physicians. He is dedicated to putting himself wholly into making us all better.
— Lynn Parry, MD
Alfred has a tremendous ability to successfully predict and navigate the health policy and legislative system. He is the single individual who has had the greatest impact on ensuring the success of physician practices in
Colorado, ensuring physicians are able to provide the care their patients need, ensuring a longstanding trusting relationship with legislators and community leaders, ensuring CMS members are well-represented and leading in quality of care, legislative issues, and solving critical crisis issues. There is another way that Alfred is different from other CEOs and leaders: he not only cares about the doctors and staff in the medical society, but he also reaches out to them and helps them on a regular basis. He is always there, always ready to help find a solution to a problem, and he is an expert in guiding us to not just solve problems, but also prevent and avoid them.
— Kay Denise Spong Lozano, MD, FACR
Alfred Gilchrist’s gift, shared unselfishly with our medical society, is a mastery of the art and science of politics. “If you see a turtle on the top of a fencepost, you know he had some help getting there” was how he challenged us to discover the reasons behind events. His best encouragement for our success was his personal north-star of leadership, “we will just out-cooperate them.”
— Ben Vernon, MD
Simply put, working with Alfred has been the vast majority of my education in policy. My first CMS meeting, as a student board member, marked his hiring...and his wisdom, support, and steadfastness have indelibly marked my career since.
— Tamaan Osbourne-Roberts, MD