November 19, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Deb Bass has essentially had three careers: She’s been an RN for 20 years, a startup entrepreneur for eight, and a CEO for about 12.

But don’t get the idea that Bass is calling this stage in her life anything like semi retirement. “I’m working harder than I ever have in my life,” she says with a laugh. As of 2012, she’s CEO of Nebraska Health Information Initiative (NeHII), a 501(c)3 dispensation with an ambitious goal to get electronic health records across the state talking to 
each other.

Health care has actually been a constant in Bass’ professional life. Specifically, the problems related to health-care information exchange.

“People don’t realize that someone who’s started a business has risked everything they own.”
– Deb Bass

“When I was a young nurse, I was in the operating room,” she recalls. “If a patient came in by ambulance, the EMTs would usually go to the patient’s medicine cabinet, empty it into a plastic bag, and bring that to the emergency room. And I would be there with the anesthesiologist, opening every bottle, looking at the pills, looking at the dates—people would put different pills in different bottles—and that’s how we put together   the pieces of what the patient was taking. That was our medicine query. By this time, we were doing surgery, and we were still trying to figure out if the patient was diabetic or if they had high blood pressure. And I remember thinking, there has got to be a better way to do this.”

Building Bass & Associates

That thought stayed with her even as she quit nursing to co-found Bass & Associates, a technology consulting business, in 1993. “February 2, to be exact,” she says. The date is firm in her memory. “We wrote the business plan, and I remember thinking, I sure do hope this works. You have to sign over your house, and…people don’t realize that someone who’s started a business has risked everything they own.” She recalls her 10-year-old daughter asking on family trips if they could please stop talking business 
for awhile.

Coincidentally, it was an aspect of health care that led Bass to reluctantly sell Bass & Associates just eight years later. “A 10 or 20 percent increase in health care every year.” She shakes her head. “You cannot build a business model that will absorb those kinds of increases each year, year after year.”

“The name has good brand value here… Throughout the years, she reiterated to me that you cannot afford to tarnish your reputation.”
– 
Bruce Peterson, executive vice president at Bass & Associates

Eventually a business has to pass on some of that cost to its employees. “And believe me, you pay as much as you can before you turn a cost back to your employees,” Bass says with emphasis. “It just got to the point where we needed to be an even larger organization so we could get better insurance.” In 2001, she sold the company and her stocks, though she stayed on as CEO and Bass & Associates kept her name.

“The name has good brand value here,” explains Bruce Peterson, executive vice president of Bass & Associates. He’s worked with Bass in several capacities over the course of two decades. “Throughout the years, she reiterated to me that you cannot afford to tarnish your reputation.” Having her name remain on a shingle she no longer owns would suggest Bass might be on to something.

 Stepping Up with NeHII

In 2007, Bass connected with NeHII (pronounced “knee high”) as a contracted resource through Bass & Associates to solve a different kind of health-care problem: the one she struggled with as a young nurse in the operating room. “To make it simple, we’re the Expedia model of health care information exchange,” she says. The public/private collaborative nonprofit that is NeHII enables electronic health records (EHRs) to speak to one another, across hospitals and across the state. “A physician enters a patient’s first name, last name, date of birth, and then we send crawlers across all participating hospitals, identify all the matches, and pull them into view on a screen.”

“She is passionate, passionate about NeHII.”
– 
Connie pratt, program director at NeHII

In an all but completely digitized world, it’s still not the norm for a physician to view a complete health record of a patient on a screen. Within one hospital, Bass explains, there may be as many as five or six different EHRs—one for the ER, one for the lab, one for the physician’s office, and so on. “Consumers get frustrated because they’re always asked to fill out the questionnaire with the  same set of questions,” she says. “‘You mean you don’t have this recorded somewhere?’ They don’t. Because they have all these siloed systems.” Benefits of a health information exchange (HIE), Bass says, include accurate data that doesn’t rely on the memory of laypersons; the ability to identify drug seekers; and facilitating consumer comparison by standardizing 
industry terminology.

“She is passionate, passionate about NeHII,” says Connie Pratt, the program director of NeHII. “She’ll go to the nth degree to make sure that it’s meeting people’s needs.” Pratt adds that the inevitable setbacks of such an undertaking don’t hold Bass’ focus for long. “She just keeps going—and that’s huge. Some people, when somebody says no, it’s done. Deb says, ‘Okay, that one said no, but we’re going to go over here now.’”

NeHII currently represents 51 percent of all hospital beds in Nebraska, on pace to represent 80 percent by 2015. The end goal, Bass says, is for all these state HIEs to connect to a federal architecture—a nationwide health information network, known in D.C. as The Healthy Way. Despite the fact that technology is ready for that scenario today, Bass says the industry is still a long way away from seeing Healthy Way work. “The challenges are the privacy and security policies and the politics.”

Maintaining the Pace

Pounding away at policies and politics means 7 o’clock mornings and 11:30 nights. “She is a doer,” Peterson says. “She was the pace car for Bass & Associates. Everybody that worked with her was trying to keep up.”

To cope, Bass sets another pace: twenty miles a week. “I really wouldn’t call it running anymore. It’s a run/walk.” And she lifts weights. “I have got to do it or my brain just goes nuts.”

20131018_bs_7033

Also keeping her grounded are her three daughters. “For all the working women out there, we always worry we’re spending too much time working and not spending enough time with our children. ‘Do they know who I am?’ And to see them all grown up and be talented and independent is…” Bass breaks off the sentence with a huge smile. Fittingly, one of her daughters is a doctor, and the other two are successful 
in business.

As for herself, Bass isn’t planning to leave the business world any time soon. Nebraska is recognized as the leader in the U.S. for HIE, and some EHRs are trying to give NeHII a run for its money. “The race isn’t done,” Bass says. “You won’t know if you’re on the right horse until you cross the finish line. And we’re all still 
riding in it.”

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