The New First Lady Of Health Care

If Senator Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), or anyone else for that matter, wants to take on health-care reform, she'll have to deal with Angela F. Braly. She will be the most powerful woman in health care come June, when she becomes chief executive of WellPoint Inc (WLP ). Braly will arguably be the most powerful woman in Corporate America, too. The $60 billion behemoth will be the largest U.S. company to have a woman at the helm. Those close to the lawyer-by-trade say she'll bring poise, preparation, and political savvy to the fray. She's already sounding diplomatic. Braly won't tell politicians what to do, she says, but will insist on a seat at the table in reform efforts: "We want to continue to be part of the dialogue."

In a swift eight-year ascent to the corner office, Braly has developed a market-oriented but nuanced approach to the knotty politics of health care. For the record, she says she's "very supportive of things like fitness and wellness programs" in California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's plan for mandatory coverage in the state, for instance, but not so enthusiastic about proposed profit caps there. President George W. Bush's plans for tax credits for health insurance costs intrigue her, but she wants to make sure "we're not dismantling the employer-based system" by adopting other changes, such as proposed taxes on benefits. And Braly is an ardent fan of consumer choice, saying insurers need to be able to tailor health plans to individuals' needs. That approach, of course, is anathema to critics who want government to be a low-cost single payer for health care.

Braly's trial by fire came in 1999, when she joined Blue Cross Blue Shield of Missouri as general counsel and point person for government relations, while the plan was in the middle of a fight over its conversion to for-profit status. It was her first job after practicing law at the St. Louis firm Lewis, Rice & Fingersh, and Braly quickly disarmed the battle's myriad protagonists with a mixture of charm and substance. The settlement that she helped broker created a billion-dollar foundation that has distributed over $200 million so far to nonprofits aimed at helping the uninsured and underinsured, and it set the stage for the Blue plan to be swallowed up by WellPoint. "She's very bright, very well prepared, and very impressive," says one opponent in that fight, Joel D. Ferber, a managing attorney with Legal Services of Eastern Missouri. "It helps to have people who are likable in those situations. Tempers flare."

It wasn't long before Braly, a Dallas native who got her law degree at Southern Methodist University and still speaks with a Texas twang, got a crash course in corporate politics, too. In 2002, WellPoint, then a fast-growing California insurer, bought the Missouri Blue plan. Two years later, Indianapolis-based Anthem acquired WellPoint (and took its name). Currently an executive vice-president who oversees the company's Medicare claims unit, Braly emerged as a key strategist in the integration of WellPoint and Anthem under outgoing CEO Larry C. Glasscock, who will stay on as chairman. Her varied roles helped as the board reviewed succession candidates last spring, with the guidance of management consultant Ram Charan. "She's very much a diplomat by nature," says John J. Riffle, a managing partner at her old firm. "It's just instinct with her."

Riffle also remembers that her capacity for work was exceptional. He would receive e-mails from her at crazy hours when she was trying to juggle the rearing of her three children with her work as a corporate lawyer. Now, with the kids in school, she'll have help from her husband, Douglas, a retired trucking company executive. "You can never wear her down," Riffle says. That's a quality that will come in handy when she's on Capitol Hill.

By Joseph Weber

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.