Tom Elkin, a visionary California Public Employees’ Retirement System executive who was widely credited with forcing health care providers to lower costs, died Dec. 16 of multiple myeloma, his family said. He was 71.
Mr. Elkin pioneered a tough approach to reducing insurance premiums while overseeing health benefit services at CalPERS, which provides coverage for more than 1 million public employees and their families. A career state worker, he joined the retirement system in 1991 after observing how government officials negotiated and contained costs for Medi-Cal services while working at the state Department of Health Services.
As assistant executive officer at CalPERS, he required insurers to detail their prices for the same types of medical procedures so that consumers could compare plans. In addition, he leveraged the immense volume of CalPERS’ purchasing power to force companies to keep premiums low.
“Tom was the first one who challenged insurers who were covering state employees to go back and take a look at their numbers,” said John Chambers, former board member of Western Health Advantage. “He got a reputation as someone who was really trying to contain costs.”
Under Mr. Elkin, CalPERS became a national model for “managed competition,” an approach to health care in which large purchasing organizations negotiate low costs and premiums on behalf of smaller employers. A 1993 article in the New York Times hailed him as “a commander in the war against the ever-rising costs of health care.” He testified before Congress, advised businesses and government agencies and served on a task force on national health care reform.
After leaving CalPERS in 1995, Mr. Elkin served as chief executive officer of Western Health Advantage, a health maintenance organization created by Mercy Healthcare Sacramento, UC Davis Health System and NorthBay Healthcare System in Fairfield. He retired in 1998 and worked as a consultant on health care purchasing.
“We recruited Tom because of his experience at CalPERS and his reputation in the health care community as somebody who was very conscious about costs,” Chambers said. “He was very beneficiary-oriented and always focused on trying to be fair and just and to do what was right for the individual consumer.”
Ethics and leadership were early lessons for Thomas James Elkin, who was born Feb. 14, 1942, in Portland, Ore. The son of parents who worked in Scouting, he set high standards for himself as an Eagle Scout and a leader at Boy Scout summer camps. At 13, he settled with his family in Santa Monica, where he played football and was student body president at Santa Monica High School.
He attended UC Berkeley on a football scholarship until several concussions forced him to quit the sport. He transferred to UCLA and graduated from UC Santa Barbara in 1965. After serving in the Coast Guard, he applied for a government job and moved to Sacramento in 1972 to work for the state personnel department.
Mr. Elkin lived with his wife Geri in Sacramento. An avid cyclist, he often commuted to work by bicycle on the American River Parkway.
“He was on the bike path weekly if not daily, especially during retirement,” his wife said.
Besides his wife, Mr. Elkin is survived by his daughter Natalie, son David, sister Erline Goodell and two grandchildren.
A memorial is set for 2 p.m. Jan. 25 at Pioneer Congregational United Church of Christ, 2700 L St., Sacramento. Donations may be made to the American River Parkway Foundation.