Using technology to change healthcare for the better

By Elise Colcord, Client Advocate and Cailey Ryckman, Finance & Accounting Manager

A note on our Town Hall Speakers: Perspectives in and outside of our industry

 As a fairly young company disrupting the payments portion of a mammoth healthcare industry, we like to keep our edges sharp. One way we’re doing that in 2016 is hosting speakers one a month. They come from different angles of the healthcare space and, occasionally, other industries, talking about their expertise and passing on nuggets of business & life wisdom. It’s an opportunity for us to develop individual take-aways and also incorporate them into Patientco. 


Russ Thomas is not what you think of when the phrase “Healthcare CEO” comes to mind. A lawyer by trade, avid cyclist and pilot for fun, and a rockstar by night, Russ is shaking up the healthcare space with his fresh vision and relentless energy.

Russ joined Availity as the CEO in 2008. He took a less-trodden path towards healthcare leadership, by way of real estate law, Bloomin’ Onions, and an upstart electronic medical publisher called Gold Standard.

It all started after law school. Russ practiced law for 10 years before making the jump into healthcare IT. After joining a small 15-person firm, the senior partner dropped a new client onto Russ’s lap — a real estate opportunity for a small but tenacious restaurant chain called Outback Steakhouse.

In the first three years of Russ’s relationship with Outback, he helped open the first 50 stores — at which point, one of the Outback owners, offered him a position to work for them directly as their real estate lawyer. “At 27, with minimal responsibility in the world except a small mortgage and a dog, I declined the opportunity to work for them because I thought it was ‘too risky,’” Russ said.

A few years later Russ left his law firm to open his own practice.

“I had a nice book of business and, at the time, had a client called Gold Standard, a healthcare technology company. As the Internet took hold, these guys wanted to build the next WebMD. They asked me to leave my practice and join their corporate practice.”

This time, Russ didn’t pass up the opportunity.

As Gold Standard grew, Russ raised money from family and friends to turn the fledging business to a viable company with an IPO on the horizon. However, the business shifted after its IPO debut–it began hemorrhaging.

But Russ didn’t abandon the company. He felt he needed to honor his family and friends’ monetary contributions. Feet to the fire, he stuck it out and ended up running the company to a breakeven point, recapitalized it, and realized its niche in a world of paper for drug information databases.

“We had a really unique position to inform. We were competing against behemoth, paper-pushing writers, and we could do what they do for a fraction of the cost,” said Russ.  “For three years we had 300% growth and then sold it to the publisher of LexisNexis, which leads to how I got to Availity.”

Working at Gold Standard inspired the healthcare IT bug in Russ. He loved being able to implement change in healthcare – change that had come to other industries, like law, long before. Come 2008, Russ joined up with Availity as its Chief Operating Office, working with Chief Executive Office Julie Klapstein as her future successor. “I’m honored by the confidence that our Board and Julie have expressed in me,” remarked at the time. “Julie has spent the last decade doing something very unique in our industry – she drew upon the benefit of a ‘shared win’ among competitors to simplify health care administration. This collaboration greatly accelerated the adoption of electronic health information and enabled health care providers and health plans to focus on what’s important: patients, not paperwork.

Availity has carved its piece of the healthcare pie in helping healthcare providers understand who is eligible for what services and knowing that they’ll get paid when all is said and done. In a time when healthcare billing and insurance reimbursement rates is nebulous at best, Availity is proof that when healthcare entities come together to implement change, huge advancement is possible.

Today, Russ is CEO over 900,000 providers that, in real time, engage with Availity. That translates into nine million transactions in their pipelines daily.

“I’d say the 3.2 billion transactions is a lot of information running through [Availity] — which gives us an edge on spotting trends in healthcare,” said Russ.

Russ sees two primary drivers of change in healthcare in the current landscape — value based care and patient responsibility. “Value based care is nothing but shifting risk. Health plans are moving risk to providers by paying doctors bundled rates to care for patients,” said Russ. And as healthcare consumers, we as patients have a new responsibility in this healthcare environment.

“I think the beauty of personal responsibility is for people to start taking better care of themselves,” noted Russ, “If an impact on your health also has an impact on your wallet, you start to think about healthcare more as a consumer.” He relayed an example when his son had bronchitis and Russ used a virtual doctor service to take care of his son instead of taking him to the ER. Small changes in patient behavior like this are having large shifts in healthcare.

Russ and Availity are looking forward to a new future for healthcare as the industry adapts. “In the next 5-10 years in healthcare, what we’re looking to do is drive inefficiency out of the healthcare world.”