Paulette Wright Transforms Benefits for the Better

Hackensack Meridian Health’s VP of Benefits Paulette Wright discusses what continues to power her engine of change

As Paulette Wright’s career has flourished for nearly three decades, a key to her success is her inclusive approach or, as she describes it: “It takes a village.’’

paulette wright
Paulette Wright, VP of Benefits & Well-Being, Hackensack Meridian HealthPhoto by Jaclyn Kronstedt

As Hackensack Meridian Health (HMH)’s vice president of benefits, this mind-set is the hallmark of Wright’s career. Just ask her about her position and how she successfully manages benefits for 35,000 team members at New Jersey’s largest and most comprehensive health network, and the talk immediately turns to her team.

Wright praises her own bosses—CEO Robert Garrett and Executive Vice President and Chief Experience Officer Nancy Corcoran-Davidoff—for their visionary leadership, as well as her own benefits team, vendor partners, and virtually every other team at the network before taking any credit.

“It’s not so much about me as it is the village,’’ she says.

Wright’s modesty is genuine, but so are her accomplishments. Since joining Hackensack University Medical Center as a benefits manager in 1991, Wright has graduated into larger roles and now serves in a major leadership role at Hackensack Meridian Health, the creation of a merger three years ago between Hackensack University Health Network and Meridian Health.

“I’ve become accustomed to driving organizational change,” Wright says. “Some of those initiatives I’ve driven have been quite challenging in the past.”

“It is so refreshing to know that we have a direct line to Paulette whenever it comes time to discuss service delivery and strategy,” says Kim Wylam, president and managing partner of Baker Tilly Vantagen. “She has a vision and is very willing to both share it and directly understand how we can uniquely help her shape it. This level of access and inclusion are unique for a large employer. This way, Paulette’s way, makes all the difference when it comes to ensuring that we remain connected to the organization’s emerging interests and motivated to perform at a high level.”

At Hackensack University Medical Center, Wright designed and led an award-winning health and well-being program that included onsite coaching and a zero-dollar coordinated care program. The organization was able to provide counseling for people struggling with the three most prevalent diseases: diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Currently, over four hundred team members are still actively using the program.

In 2014, Wright was able to introduce a new holistic integrated PTO access management platform called My Time. “This evolving project faced challenges common to integration initiatives: it required full-management buy-in and a significant cultural change for the organization,” Wright says. A companywide survey scored its highest rating in four years following its introduction, and My Time was later adopted by the American Society of Healthcare and Human Resources Organization.

Wright also led the redesign of the pension benefits from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan. Prior to the implementation, organizational participation was only 38 percent. Participation then rose to 95 percent. “Those outcomes are what really helped propel me forward in my career,” Wright says.

“I want to be able to hear the team members singing the praises of these benefit programs.”

Perhaps Wright’s most significant contribution came with Hackensack’s 2016 merger of HMH, which now includes seventeen hospitals, more than five hundred patient care locations, and seven thousand physicians. The merger quadrupled the health system’s team members from eight thousand to thirty-five thousand. “The integration consisted of over one hundred different PTO programs,” Wright says. “From the outset, it was extremely nerve-wracking.”

The integration meant scrapping thirteen different payroll systems and medical plans, six life insurance plans, six union contracts, multiple decentralized policies and processes, as well as 401(k) retirement and vendor contracts.

“Bringing together the multitude of employee benefit plans and programs into one harmonized platform, while meeting the needs of all parties, was a challenge,” recalls Joe Milano, area vice president of Gallagher. “Paulette’s passion and commitment to both HMH and their team members was her driving motivation. Her ability to ask the right questions, seek the right data and then transform all these pieces in a cohesive narrative to inform senior leadership was instrumental in her ability to successfully achieve the ‘OneHMH total rewards program.’”

“Right out of the gate, step one was to articulate and define a single total rewards philosophy based on the Hackensack Meridian Health’s mission, which is to transform healthcare,” Wright explains. “We also used our shared beliefs to guide the design, ensuring every decision we made was compassionate (had the team members at heart), collaborative (it was iterative and included feedback of the team), creative (we imagined the best overall plan for our team), and courageous (we made some tough decisions about what would work best for all team members).”

Wright says that the support she received from the larger organization was essential to the successful integration. “Every dollar that was identified as savings was approved by the organization to reinvest back into the team member, creating a total rewards program,” Wright says. With the help of a large team of vendor partners and leaders throughout the organization, Wright was eventually able to enroll all thirty-five thousand team members in a single, new HMH program.

“I’ve become accustomed to driving organizational change.”

TIAA, Hackensack’s retirement plan provider, is just as pleased to be part of the competitive and inclusive total reward package Hackensack makes available to its team members. “Paulette, along with the rest of the Hackensack team, has done a terrific job developing and implementing a comprehensive 401(k) plan,” says Colin Pierce, TIAA’s managing director of healthcare market. “TIAA has been fortunate to be part of Hackensack’s efforts to improve the financial well-being of their team members with such an impactful retirement planning process.”

The path to a harmonized total rewards program had to be paved with good, hard data. “Data is king, and in our situation, we could not have arrived at a harmonized program without reliable data,” Wright says. “We used our data to assess, develop, and measure the impact of current states versus possible future states that really helped us see where we needed to go.”

Any of these accomplishments would be a point of pride. Collectively, they are testimony to Wright’s thirst for excellence and dedication to team members. The satisfaction of those team members is how Wright says she’ll ultimately judge her own career effectiveness.

Mercer’s client manager, Sandra Pemberton, states, “Paulette was very instrumental in working with Mercer, a long standing strategic partner, on the integration and harmonization of Hackensack Meridian Health retirement, healthcare, and total rewards programs; on obtaining the optimal solution; and creating a best place to work while driving organizational performance and focusing on team members experience and engagement.”

“Success will be measured in the feedback of our team members,” Wright says. “It really is about the village here that we’re talking about because it was their feedback in their surveys and the stories they’ve shared about their outcomes that are the motivation for me to continue driving change.

“In providing these programs,” she continues, “we listen to the feedback of everyone in the organization, and I want to be able to hear the team members here singing the praises of these benefits programs.”

Completing this total rewards program not only served in the workforce’s best interest but also established Hackensack Meridian Health’s system-wide philosophy centered on collaboration, creativity, compassion, and courage to serve its patient population and its own team members.

With healthcare mergers and acquisitions (M&A) activity on the rise, one fundamental success factor is how well an organization integrates its biggest asset―its workforce—within the new entity.

Every HR professional plays a critical role in bringing together distinctive workforces and helping the combined organization achieve its goals. John Kahle, managing director of healthcare sales at TIAA, shares four best practices to help healthcare HR achieve M&A success.

  • Be transparent and get everybody on the same page.
  • Keep culture at the heart of an organization.
  • Take a total compensation approach.
  • Remember: M&A is more than a business transaction—to employees, it’s personal.