Marc Harrison at UVU

Marc Harrison, the CEO of Intermountain Healthcare, addresses students on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020 at Utah Valley University in Orem.

Marc Harrison was warned he’d be sued if Intermountain Healthcare pursued the creation of Civica Rx, a generic drug company he hoped would help greatly reduce the cost of medications for patients.

He did it anyway.

“That is how you make big changes,” Harrison said.

After investing $10 million into the idea, Harrison, the CEO of Intermountain Healthcare, said there’s already been changes in the pharmaceutical market.

Harrison addressed the cost of health care, what Intermountain Healthcare is doing to lower it and his beliefs on ethical leadership on Wednesday during a lecture at Utah Valley University in Orem.

During the lecture — which was part speech, part continuous question-and-answer session from the audience — Harrison discussed his multiple myeloma diagnosis, his recent bone marrow transplant and how two different cancer diagnoses have helped him to sharpen his focus on how he can make the most impact on his communities.

“I think having some intentionality and being present in your day-to-day life is a good thing and I certainly feel that every day,” he said.

He shared that Intermountain Healthcare wanted to get involved in lowering the rates of suicide and opioid addictions without getting involved in political debates. Instead, he said, the company has looked to grassroots efforts, like handing out 15,000 gun locks.

“That’s the right way of getting things done, in our estimation,” Harrison said.

After discovering that 60% of opioids in the community came from Intermountain Healthcare, the company went to caregivers, educated them about opioid addictions, changed the default number of pills that come in a prescription and have reduced the amount of opioids it has prescribed by 6 million within 18 months.

“This is a very Utah pioneer kind of approach to solving really sticky problems,” Harrison said.

He pointed to the nonprofit organization reducing the cost of delivering a child by $2,000, a reduction of about a third. He said Intermountain Healthcare will be reducing system-wide costs of treating an infant in a neonatal intensive care unit by $50 million.

But with most of the company’s expenses being attributed to the cost of its employees, Harrison said he’s received death threats about changes.

He encouraged students to be decent to others in order to create a new standard.

“When you are a leader, when you are a human being, if you see a behavior that is positive, and you don’t stop and praise somebody and thank them, that is a missed opportunity,” Harrison said.

If they don’t intervene when they see bullying or demeaning behavior, he said that normalizes the behavior.

He encouraged students to identify what they’re willing to take professional and personal risks to address. Harrison pointed to Intermountain Healthcare deciding to participate in the Utah Pride Festival parade and said he wanted his LGBTQ employees to feel like they can bring their whole selves to work.

The company was allowed to include 250 people march with them. It received requests for 800 who wanted to.

Afterward, Harrison said a woman approached him to say it was the first time her daughter felt like she could do something while being herself.

“To be able to unleash that for another human being, that is really big,” Harrison said.

Intermountain Healthcare operates three existing hospitals in Utah County, has one under construction in Spanish Fork and plans to create a satellite campus for Primary Children’s Hospital in Lehi.

In an interview following the lecture, Harrison said the health care system has chosen to expand in Utah County due to its population growth leading to a need for additional services.

“We are not over-bedded in Utah County,” he said.

Spanish Fork Hospital, he said, is being built at half of the size it would have been constructed five years ago because Intermountain Healthcare is shifting to more outpatient services.

After two decades as a pediatric intensive care unit doctor, and now the CEO of Utah’s largest employer, Harrison said he knows that there’s often more than one right thing that can be chosen during the decision-making process.

“That’s where I think it is great to have diversity of opinions on teams,” Harrison said. “We often involve front-line caregivers on making decisions.”

Braley Dodson covers health and education for the Daily Herald.

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