January 3, 2011 | last updated June 1, 2012 9:31 am

Five Newsmakers To Watch In 2011

Rinker: State Workers Seek Role in Budget Fix

When Gov.-Elect Dan Malloy beat Tom Foley by fewer than 7,000 votes last November, it's no secret that state union workers played a big role in the victory. In fact, the day Malloy was declared the unofficial winner, the Service Employees International Union put out a press release with a headline that screamed "Service Workers Help Secure Malloy's Victory."

As the most anticipated legislative session in recent memory gets underway this week, and lawmakers attempt to close a projected $3.5 billion budget deficit, a lot of focus will be on the relationship between Malloy and state union workers.

And that puts the spotlight on Robert Rinker, the executive director of CSEA/SEIU Local 2001, one of the 13 unions in the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition that represents more than 23,000 public employees and retirees. Rinker will be at the table with the Malloy Administration for any labor negotiations.

State employees are often caught in the political crossfire during budget fights. But Rinker said that doesn't need to be the case. State workers want to be part of the solution, he said. But he also said the deficit can't be closed on the backs of state workers. And the conversation can't start with concessions either.

"As soon as you move the conversation to concessions, then you are creating an adversarial relationship," said Rinker, who noted that state workers agreed to $700 million in wage and benefit concessions in 2009.

Rinker said there is no secret deal between unions and Malloy, something Foley repeatedly charged during the campaign. He said union workers supported Malloy because he has a long-term vision for the state's future and he will empower frontline workers to help drive efficiencies in government, which could reduce costs by up to 5 percent of the overall budget.

And he said union workers have plenty of "win-win" ideas on how to do that, many of which have been ignored by the Rell and Rowland administrations.

Offering delayed retirement incentives, encouraging more telecommuting and allowing willing workers to cut their work week are just a few examples.

Rinker said the state also needs to overhaul the way it contracts out services and products to ensure that more of the work is done by state employees or Connecticut-based companies.

In terms of health care savings, Rinker said unions are open to shifting to a more value-based health plan with better chronic disease management. He favors the patient-centered medical home concept and finding ways to drive down ER visits and readmission rates, which are high among state workers.

And while the state looks to trim its budget, Rinker said lawmakers must consider long-term investments that will drive economic growth, including fixing decrepit state roads and bridges and moving forward with high-speed rail.

"The way we get out of this economic crisis is putting people back to work," Rinker said.

Laurencin: Growing New Technology

In 2011, the University of Connecticut Health Center will achieve new levels of research furthering patient care and spinning off businesses based on breakthrough technology.

The man leading the charge — Dr. Cato Laurencin — is the perfect example. In addition to running a center dedicated to moving technology from the lab to the market, Laurencin has a side business studying knee ligament regeneration.

The New Haven medical start-up Soft Tissue Regeneration, founded with Laurencin's technology, uses bioengineered tissue for reconstruction of the knee's anterior cruciate ligament. The goal is a treatment alternative that's less painful and prone to infection than traditional surgery.

By 2011's end, the technology will proceed to clinical trials, a precursor to approval from U.S. Food and Drug Administration. If approved, Soft Tissue Regeneration can bring its product to market.

As UConn's vice president for health affairs, Laurencin wants to replicate this individual success throughout the state medical system.

In 2011, UConn Health Center will add 40 faculty members to its ranks of 500 to boost the link between clinical work and research, especially in the institution's strength areas of cardiology, musculoskeletal, genetics, cellular biology and vascular biology.

Laurencin will play a key role in the hiring process to ensure the additions are enthusiastic about the health center's initiative, much like those that followed Laurencin to UConn from the University of Virginia in 2008. This group includes Dr. Lakshmi S. Nair, who received two U.S. Army grants in 2010 totaling $764,000 to explore tissue regrowth using stem cells.

UConn's commitment to research includes creating 330,000 sq. ft. of state-of-the-art laboratory space, renovations starting in 2011. The facility got a jumpstart on this effort in the fall when it opened the Cell and Genome Sciences Building, home to stem cell research. That new facility includes an incubator to grow new technology into businesses.

This year will bring significant strides in the development of the UConn Health Network. With the expected receipt of $100 million grant from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, the major renovations of the John Dempsey Hospital will proceed to coincide with initiatives for increased care, research and start-up businesses. The Health Network will partner UConn with other hospitals and providers around the state to address issues such as health disparity and health worker education.

"We need to create models and programs that not only benefit the health center but benefit the region and the state," Laurencin said.

Bertolini: Leading Aetna Through Uncertain Times

For Mark Bertolini, 2011 marks his first full year at the helm of one of the country's largest health insurers, and one of Greater Hartford's largest employers.

And the recently named chief executive officer of Hartford-based Aetna will have his hands full.

Bertolini is expected to unveil a long-term plan for the company's future in the spring. He has got to deal with a slumping economy that continues to shrink the insurer's membership rolls — forcing difficult decisions about employment levels at the company in Hartford and around the country.

And he's trying to come to grips with a little policy issue known as federal health care reform, which promises to make sweeping changes to the health care landscape.

All the uncertainty comes as Bertolini continues to transition into his new role, where he now pilots a 34,000-employee corporate giant.

"We are still in the midst of a tough economy so we need to manage the core business effectively," Bertolini said. "There needs to be a level of oversight and assurance because in times of transition balls can be dropped. It's important that I stay close to that."

In the spring, Bertolini said he will unveil a long-term plan for the company, which he and his predecessor Ronald Williams have been developing for more than a year. The strategy will likely include plans to grow internationally, especially in India and China, where the regulatory environment may be thawing to allow private insurance companies to play a larger role in health care system. The fact that China has a larger middle class than the United States makes it a very attractive market.

At the same time, Aetna will likely continue boost investments in health information technology, a strategy the company already hinted at with the recent acquisition of Utah-based Medicity.

But Bertolini stopped short of promising earth shattering changes. "We are not going to buy General Motors," Bertolini said jokingly.

Aetna is also projecting another drop in membership in the first quarter of 2011, but there's no indication of how that will impact employment levels at the company. Aetna recently announced that it was laying off about 200 employees nationwide, including 50 in Connecticut. The company employs about 7,200 workers in the Nutmeg state.

In terms of health care reform, Bertolini said a lot of uncertainty still surrounds the law. If the individual mandate that requires everyone to buy health insurance is eventually ruled unconstitutional, that would have a major impact on insurance company's ability to provide coverage to all individuals with preexisting conditions.

He said the current law presents a lot of opportunity for insurers because it will add 30 million more people into the system. But there are still far too few physicians to deal with that patient load.

Friedland: The Next Step in Fuel Cells

This year likely will be the year Robert Friedland thought 2010 would be.

While revenues at his Proton Energy Systems increased 5 percent last year, Friedland wanted the fuel cell manufacturer to grow by 20 percent, vaulting the Wallingford firm into sustainable profitability. That would mean an end to cash infusions from its owner and investors.

With three product launches and a Middle East expansion, Proton Energy Systems is poised to make that leap in 2011.

"This year has turned into one that has positioned us for rapid growth when the world economy recovers," said Friedland, Proton co-founder, president and CEO.

Connecticut is a leader in research, development and manufacturing of fuel cells — a clean technology using hydrogen to generate power — and Proton has been the little brother in a state industry including UTC Power and FuelCell Energy. Founded in 1996, Proton struggled and was auctioned off in 2008, falling into the hands of flooring entrepreneur Tom Sullivan.

Proton has relied on Sullivan for cash injections because the company's annual $15-$20 million revenue stream ebbs and flows. To stay sustainable without tapping more of Sullivan's cash, Proton curtailed its high research-and-development spending to focus on selling products.

In 2010, Proton launched HOGEN C Series generator, a product that drew six orders already for 2011 from the lucrative semiconductor and material processing industries. Proton also launched a line of equipment for laboratory onsite generators, a $60-million market.

Proton gained notoriety in the environmental community with the launch of the Hydrogen Highway. SunHydro, a company owned by Sullivan using Proton's technology, installed in October the first of 12 user-friendly fueling stations for fuel cell cars to run from Maine to Florida. By demystifying the technology to consumers, Friedland believes demand for fuel cells will increase long-term.

Proton's biggest geographic expansion in 2010 was partnering with Saudi Arabia's SupplyCore Middle East to sell hydrogen equipment to that region's energy industries. Proton also expanded into China, Australia and Africa last year.

By moving into growing world markets, Proton could wait for North American and Europe to recover. Friedland believes that wait is over, as the third and fourth quarter revenues in 2010 were up almost 20 percent compared to 2009, positioning Proton for a landmark year in 2011.

Bello: Driving Changes To Serve Latino Community

Yvette Bello is looking for change. Not spare change or quick change. She wants systemic change.

As the executive director of Latino Community Services, a Hartford-based organization that provides case management and support services to people living with AIDS, she knows that change is both possible — and necessary — particularly within healthcare.

Bello should know. She spent six years with the Connecticut Department of Public Health, with a focus on diversity issues. Since joining Latino Community Services in 2005 and becoming executive director in 2007, change has been her mantra — whether it meant implementing more effective metrics, forging collaborations or expanding programming, goals which, she says, will continue to drive her organization in 2011.

As a leader, Bello sees adaptability as a key to her personal and organizational success. That has meant understanding demographic trends and challenges of a rapidly growing Latino population in Connecticut and adjusting programming accordingly, as Latinos have expanded in both size and diversity.

"Latinos are the second fastest growing ethnic group in the state [behind Asians]," Bello said, "and the community includes more Peruvians and Ecuadorians." She notes that, according to the latest census data, nearly 18 percent of Connecticut's residents speak a language other than English in the home — often Spanish.

That reality has significant impacts to healthcare and provides Bello's organization with greater responsibility to address language barriers that often exist. Many medical facilities, she said, aren't prepared for growing number of Spanish speaking patients — even as they are legally required to provide translation services. "There's a big difference is care when an in-person translator is involved in the healthcare discussion versus someone on the phone."

For her part, Bello is looking to address this gap by developing a fee-for-service medical interpreting program at Latino Community Services, which will train translators to be more effective advocates for patients. She sees the fee-for-service model as both an opportunity to support the organization's bottom line and a chance to extend its reach to meet the needs of the broader Latino population.

It'll mean more change, more work, and more collaboration, but Bello is comfortable with that. She's reminded of the need for new ways of thinking every time she meets a new client with AIDS. "When that happens, I realize there were plenty of missed opportunities for that person," Bello said. "Maybe it was not understanding the risks or not knowing where to turn for information and resources."

As she pushes herself and her organization in 2011, Bello knows she won't solve the problem of AIDS or healthcare for Latinos, but she'd like to make some dents — visible signs of change.

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