The CalOptima board of directors Thursday voted to contract with the Children and Families Commission of Orange County and use its executive director, Michael Ruane, as the health plan’s temporary chief operating officer.

Ruane is a longtime county executive but has no experience running an enormous health plan like the $1.4-billion CalOptima. His appointment had been rumored for weeks.

In a telephone interview after the CalOptima board acted, Ruane said he and his commission view the contract as a way to help the health plan while it tries to fill 15 top- and mid-level management vacancies.

“I’m not leaving [Children and Families] commission employment,” he said. “Mutual aid, I think, is the best description of it.”

The commission, financed through a 50 cents per pack tax on tobacco approved by voters as Proposition 10 in 1998, provides a wide range of services to county children, including financial help to hospitals and clinics.

The commission must approve the agreement for CalOptima to pay Ruane’s salary for up to a year. It could call a special meeting or wait until its regular Sept. 5 meeting.

The commission’s nine board members include Mark Refowitz, head of the county Health Care Agency and chairman of the CalOptima board, and another CalOptima board member, Michael Riley, director of the county’s Social Services Agency. CalOptima attorney Gary Crockett said neither Refowitz nor Riley had a conflict of interest in voting on the proposed contract with the Children and Families Commission.

A six-member quorum of the CalOptima board, including Refowitz and Riley, met for 45 minutes behind closed doors to discuss temporarily filling vacancies at the health plan that serves about 430,000 low-income, disabled and elderly county residents. When they reconvened in public session, they voted, without discussion, to sign a contract with the Children and Families Commission for up to one year of management services.

After the meeting, Refowitz said Ruane’s temporary position would be as chief operating officer. Ruane’s current annual salary is $225,000, substantially less than the roughly $275,000 the health plan paid when it had a permanent chief operating officer.

CalOptima also is searching for a permanent chief executive officer and hopes to have that position filled by November.

For at least two weeks, rumors have circulated through the county Hall of Administration that Ruane would be moved to CalOptima. He also has been mentioned as a possible successor to former county CEO Thomas Mauk.

“They are rumors I hear the same way you hear them,” Ruane said. He also declined to discuss the possibility of taking the permanent CEO post at CalOptima. “I’m not addressing anything” along those lines, he said.

The main responsibility of a chief operating officer is to keep the nonmedical daily operations of the health plan, like claims processing, running smoothly.

Ruane has no experience running a health plan, but his experience at the Children and Families Commission involved substantial children’s health issues, Refowitz said.

For six years beginning in 1989, Ruane was director of the since-disbanded county Environmental Management Agency. After that, he spent another four years as an assistant county chief executive officer, with responsibilities that included helping set up the Children and Families Commission after voters approved Proposition 10. He was the interim director of the commission before becoming executive director in 2000.


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