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Visionary Daniel Coughlin’s Legacy Will Benefit Many for Years to Come

Cardinal Innovations Healthcare — December 11, 2020
Whether Daniel Coughlin was walking the halls of Piedmont Behavioral Health (PBH), chatting cheerfully with employees or envisioning a better future for North Carolinians, he brought kindness, warmth, vision and an infectious “can do” attitude to the job, say those who worked closely with him. (PBH was later renamed Cardinal Innovations Healthcare.)

Coughlin, 76, of Concord, died on December 4 after a brief illness. The Cardinal Innovations team was saddened to learn of the passing of this visionary leader and friend.

“Dan Coughlin was not only a primary influence in the innovation of behavioral services in the state of North Carolina, he was also a primary driver of innovation in the hearts and minds of his employees,” said Amber Burris, Director of Program Integrity in Cardinal Innovations’ Corporate Compliance division. “He challenged us to be forward thinkers and to keep the members we serve at the forefront of everything we do.”

Born in Binghamton, New York, Coughlin received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Scranton and his Masters of Social Work from Syracuse University and worked in mental health for the next 40 years, starting as a psychotherapist at the Children's Home of Wyoming Conference in Binghamton and then at Tioga County Mental Health Services. He later served as Director of Tioga County Mental Health Services and Commissioner of Broome County Mental Health Services and was elected as Chairman of NYS Local Mental Health Directors Conference.

Coughlin joined Cardinal Innovations as CEO in July 2000 when it was still called Piedmont Behavioral Health and operated in just five counties – Cabarrus, Davidson, Rowan, Stanly and Union. He envisioned a future that would be better for members – a future now unfolding as North Carolina works toward system-wide Medicaid reform that integrates physical and behavioral health care.

Cardinal Innovations piloted Medicaid managed care for the state under Coughlin’s leadership. In 2012, this grew into a statewide effort and the birth of the Local Management Entity/Managed Care Organization (LME/MCO) system that exists today. All of that started with Coughlin’s vision and Cardinal Innovations’ pilot model.

“And now, 15 years after that first pilot, it is expanding to physical and pharmacy services with the launch of Standard Plans and Tailored Plans,” said Chuck Hollowell, General Counsel for Cardinal Innovations.

Anna Marshall, Senior Change Manager with Cardinal Innovations’ Transformation Office, has worked for the organization for 25 years and remembers the enthusiasm Coughlin brought to work.

“He believed that we could serve more people with higher quality and better quality measures while saving the state money,” Marshall said. “His message was that we can be on the frontier, paving the way to a new structure of serving those most in need in our communities. By 2011, we had saved the state over $200 million dollars and that led to legislation of what we developed to be used statewide.”

Marshall recalls that Coughlin always made every person he worked with feel like an important and valued member of the team.

“We are a family of dedicated people, and he saw that, and whenever he had the chance, would remind us of that,” Marshall said. “His stories, laughter and kindness to each employee that he met was contagious. We believed him when he said we could do this. He is the visionary who led us where we are today.”

When Coughlin first joined Piedmont Behavioral Health (now Cardinal Innovations), the N.C. General Assembly had just issued a 430-page report recommending many changes to the publicly funded mental health system. Coughlin was optimistic about the recommendations.

In 2012, following his retirement, Coughlin told NC Health News that he had always believed that the changes the report outlined were possible. He thought it could follow a model he had seen while working in New York, where he had learned that states could ask the federal government for exemptions to some Medicaid rules in an effort to improve member outcomes while saving the state money. These are the 1915(b) and 1915(c) waivers that the state operates under today.

Cardinal Innovations has continued to build on that pioneering attitude set by Coughlin’s example.

“Dan founded our innovative efforts, encouraged creative and outside-of-the-box thinking and approaches, and most importantly, fostered relationships with our community partners and the state to share in the care of our members and their families,” said Emily Bridge, Director of Transformation. “It was my honor to work under his leadership during my early years with the organization.”


View details about virtual and in-person services planned from 3 to 5 p.m. on Sunday, December 13.

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