Meet Our Team: Q&A with Mari Cantwell, Director, California Services

Mari Cantwell oversees the firm’s initiatives in California and uses her policy experience to offer clients insight into state financing, Medicaid services and functions, and community programs. She served as the Medicaid Director for the California Department of Health Care Services (DHCS) from 2015 until January 2020. She entered the Director role following her time as the appointed Chief Deputy Director of Health Care Programs, which began in February 2013. Mari was responsible for the overall management of the policy deputy directors over Health Care Delivery Systems, Health Care Financing, and Health Care Benefits and Eligibility. Prior to her appointment, Mari served as the Deputy Director, Health Care Financing, where she was responsible for the development, promotion, and implementation of health care delivery systems to the beneficiaries of the State Medi-Cal program. Before joining DHCS, Mari worked at the California Association of Public Hospitals & Health Systems (CAPH) as the Vice President of Finance Policy for six years.

What brought you to Sellers Dorsey?

When I joined the firm, I had been working independently as a consultant for organizations working in Medicaid. Several of my colleagues from DHCS had joined Sellers Dorsey, and I was looking to be part of a team rather than working on my own. The firm’s passion for and commitment to Medicaid are what drew me to Sellers Dorsey.

What’s your special area of expertise?

My prior experience at both CAPH and then my nine years at DHCS provided me with a wide range of experience with finance, policy, and strategy in Medicaid. My clients value my perspective as a former Medicaid director and come to me for trusted advice on all aspects of their work, whether they need help reviewing and commenting on various Medi-Cal implementation issues, strategic advice on working with entities and/or DHCS, understanding a variety of rate settings and methodologies, rolling out benefits, or creating the legislative framework for specifically targeted initiatives.

Who are your typical clients?

My typical clients come from across the health care spectrum. For example, I work with associations, counties, foundations, plans, providers, and state agencies.

What have you worked on recently?

I’ve had the joy of being able to work closely with CAPH and the Local Health Plans of California (LHPC), two organizations whose passion for and commitment to Medi-Cal and the uninsured matches my own vision and mission. My work with CAPH is in assisting across a wide range of areas, including developing new proposals to help improve the public health care systems and their role in Medi-Cal. Given that they are such critical providers with the right expertise in providing the types of services that CalAIM offers, I’ve been working with them on the implementation of CalAIM. Similarly, since LHPC represents the public managed care plans at the core of CalAIM initiatives, I’ve also assisted them with the CalAIM implementation and provided other general strategic support.

What do you like about working at Sellers Dorsey?

My colleagues and clients believe in serving Medicaid populations as passionately as I do. Sellers Dorsey is exciting because I get to work with so many kinds of stakeholders to help Medicaid members.

How has your work changed over time?

In my tenure working for the State, I have developed strong relationships with different Medicaid stakeholders in California. At Sellers Dorsey, I get to continue to work with them as my clients from a different perspective. Now, I work on those same Medicaid initiatives from the client’s—rather than the State’s—point of view.

What do you believe lies ahead in the next couple of years for your clients?

One of my accomplishments from my time as California’s Medicaid director was being a part of the development of the multiyear CalAIM initiative, which aims to improve outcomes in health care and reduce disparities through value-based care and payment reform. CalAIM recently launched, so helping providers and plans work within this new framework will continue to be a major focus area for me and my clients in the future.

Do you have a favorite book, movie, quote, or personal hobby you can share?

I’m a voracious reader and usually read about 200 books a year. I love books’ ability to transport us into the characters’ universe. Most recently, I’ve been enjoying Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One series.

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