Benefits Leave Lasting Impressions

By Jennifer Benz

May. 17, 2017

To truly excel in HR and benefits is to have an immeasurable impact on your organization and your people in the very best ways — one that extends far beyond annual enrollment numbers and upticks in wellness screenings. As HR professionals, we don’t step back often enough to look at the bigger influence of the hard work that reaches beyond your organization’s walls and far into the future.

When HR is done right, you create a legacy. I was reminded of that recently when I had the honor of attending the retirement party for Catherine Dodd, who spent the past 7 1/2 years as director of the San Francisco Health Service System, serving the city and county of San Francisco, City College of San Francisco, the San Francisco Unified School District and the San Francisco Superior Court.

“Dedicated to preserving and improving sustainable, quality health benefits and to enhancing the well-being of employees, retirees and their families,” is how the HSS mission statement describes the organization and how you could describe her tenure there.

Dodd’s party was full of fanfare and luminaries, with messages from notable politicians including San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi. More inspiring were the stories about how lives were changed under Dodd’s leadership: those from her team and the 117,000-plus members of HSS’ health and benefits plans who have better care and better resources.

Dodd might be an unlikely hero of HR, as she reminded me that her time at HSS was her only time “in HR.” But her prior work helped her for that role, especially her significant expertise in the health care system as an RN, health administrator and health policy expert. I asked Dodd to share some of her lessons for creating a truly remarkable career.

Her first piece of advice: Focus on people. “What matters is the employees and retirees. I decided I would focus on that each day. Simply, I’m going to do the best for my members. That will guide what else you do and where you focus your time,” she said. This is the win/win that makes benefits, in particular, an exciting area. From the employer perspective, healthy and happy employees are the ones who are most valuable to the organization. There’s a strong business case for focusing on their needs.

After her first couple of years at HSS ensuring compliance and efficient operations, she shifted her attention to patient-centered care. “I had that ‘ah-ha’ when a retiree called crying and couldn’t get up the 100 steps to her apartment after being discharged after having heart surgery. I had no idea how disjointed the system was — doctors not talking to hospitals, no coordination at discharge. That’s when we set out to create accountable care organizations. Since then, the medical group case managers are in touch daily. They know where patients are, and the care has improved greatly, not just for HSS members but for patients throughout the Bay Area. Little did we know how innovative it would be.” In fact, San Francisco was a leader in creating ACOs.

That was just the first issue she dug into. Among others: creating a wellness program and nurturing a culture of health, including opening a top-notch well-being center; developing new ways to provide benefits and identify needs for mental well-being; supporting the transgender community; introducing adoption and surrogacy benefits; offering regular movement classes and introducing diabetes management programs. These innovations were driven by a defined need and a desire to create the best possible outcome for members.

“Being a benefits administrator is not just about compliance. It is about finding the opportunities to make things better,” Dodd said.

The San Francisco HSS calls itself an “activist payer committed to higher value.” That’s a bold yet accurate statement, as they partner with external groups like the Pacific Business Group on Health to advocate legislative causes. They also work with insurance providers, other vendors and community organizers to better coordinate care.

With the need to change and improve our health care system, this is a role that all benefits leaders can embrace. As Dodd said, “I absolutely think if we’ll be successful in maintaining employer-based insurance, all employers should be involved in the legislative and regulatory space, and in holding all vendors accountable to produce the best results. You have to have a voice in solutions for the whole system, not just employer-sponsored programs.”

And, being part of building a better health care system for all is certainly leaving a legacy.

Jennifer Benz leads Segal Benz, a national leader in HR and employee benefits communications. She was honored as one of Workforce’s “Game Changers” in 2013. Contact her at or follow her on Twitter at @jenbenz.

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