Knowl­edge Ben­e­fits CEO Don­na Mar­shall is a long-time trail­blaz­er in the Col­orado health­care mar­ket­place.

In 1996, she suc­cess­ful­ly found­ed the Col­orado Busi­ness Group on Health (CBGH) and served as its exec­u­tive direc­tor until step­ping down last year. Dur­ing her tenure she par­tic­i­pat­ed in numer­ous boards, com­mit­tees, and coali­tions. Pri­or to CBGH, she served as the man­ag­er of Man­aged Care Ser­vices at the  Col­orado Depart­ment of Health Care Pol­i­cy and Financ­ing. As a nurse with an MBA, her focus has always been get­ting peo­ple high-qual­i­ty health­care at a low­er cost.

And she’s not done. Her lat­est ven­ture is found­ing edu­ca­tion start up Knowl­edge Ben­e­fits. Knowl­edge Ben­e­fits uses fact-based, accred­it­ed online cours­es to edu­cate employ­ers about the health­care indus­try and pro­mote pur­chas­ing high-val­ue care.

After 37 years and a brief retire­ment, Mar­shall con­tin­ues to advo­cate for improv­ing health through smarter health­care pur­chas­ing.

Here’s what Don­na has to say about the indus­try, her new com­pa­ny, and how she hopes to change the way employ­ers pur­chase and admin­is­ter health­care ben­e­fits.

What are the biggest issues fac­ing the indus­try right now?

Our research has shown that most health ben­e­fits admin­is­tra­tors and exec­u­tives learn on the job. But when you do this, you sim­ply learn how your pre­de­ces­sor did the work. Health­care costs have seri­ous­ly esca­lat­ed while health­care prod­ucts have become “skin­nier” with high­er deductibles and co-pays. And the cycle con­tin­ues. The health­care indus­try is fail­ing us — and it’s time we take it back into our own hands.

Many ben­e­fits exec­u­tives need edu­ca­tion to build and bol­ster their own knowl­edge arse­nal. Who’s real­ly steer­ing the ship — and writ­ing the checks — on this health ben­e­fit strat­e­gy?

How does Knowl­edge Ben­e­fits help empow­er peo­ple in their career?

The oppor­tu­ni­ties for human resource spe­cial­ists and exec­u­tives are quite large; recent­ly, there were 36,000 avail­able posi­tions on one job site alone. Yet, class­es for HR exec­u­tives have a more gen­er­al­ist focus, and the foun­da­tion and skills need­ed for peo­ple who are experts at health ben­e­fits admin­is­tra­tion are not eas­i­ly found. It’s essen­tial to offer spe­cial­ized edu­ca­tion on the issues of health ben­e­fits.

Peo­ple should take these online cours­es so they can real­ly under­stand the block-and-tack­le tac­tics that health­care com­pa­nies apply, how to design ben­e­fits for their employ­ees, and how to be more strate­gic in pur­chas­ing high-val­ue ben­e­fits.

This is a plus not only for the career ben­e­fits admin­is­tra­tors them­selves, but for their cowork­ers and com­pa­ny. It will help them secure jobs with For­tune 500 or For­tune 100 com­pa­nies — com­pa­nies that are look­ing for peo­ple who under­stand what the mar­ket­place is all about. It will teach them how to be more ana­lyt­ic in ben­e­fit pro­cure­ment and admin­is­tra­tion, and more strate­gic in ben­e­fit design.

What hap­pens after some­one com­pletes all the cours­es?

As health ben­e­fits admin­is­tra­tors and exec­u­tives become experts in their field, they can nego­ti­ate much stronger con­tracts on behalf of their employ­ees and com­pa­nies. They’re also more valu­able in the job mar­ket because they know how to employ the lat­est mar­ket strate­gies, includ­ing val­ue-based pur­chas­ing, price and qual­i­ty trans­paren­cy, and bun­dled pric­ing.

Health­care is com­pli­cat­ed. Most com­pa­nies aren’t effec­tive pur­chasers. Even jum­bos like Ama­zon, Berk­shire Hath­away, and Chase are join­ing forces. We hope that small-and mid­dle-mar­ket employ­ers will real­ize the same thing and join busi­ness coali­tions, iden­ti­fy inde­pen­dent sources of infor­ma­tion like our part­ners Leapfrog for qual­i­ty and all pay­or claims data­bas­es for pric­ing, and then share best prac­tices in their com­mu­ni­ties.

We’re hop­ing to build a cadre of experts who grasp the essen­tials of the health­care mar­ket­place and know how to be bet­ter pur­chasers.

Was there a light bulb moment for you before tak­ing on this new role?

I was still the exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Col­orado Busi­ness Group on Health when I real­ized that it was extreme­ly dif­fi­cult to find ben­e­fits exec­u­tives who had a wide range of knowl­edge in top­ics such as con­tract pro­cure­ment, pop­u­la­tion health, waste in the health­care sys­tem, how to get bet­ter qual­i­ty of ser­vices, and bet­ter trans­paren­cy in cost and qual­i­ty. This work is a log­i­cal exten­sion of my pas­sion to see stronger action by health ben­e­fits admin­is­tra­tors.

What’s sur­prised you most about tak­ing the helm at Knowl­edge Ben­e­fits?

I am find­ing that dri­ving a vir­tu­al com­pa­ny with online access and pres­ence is so dif­fer­ent from the world that I know. It’s been a steep learn­ing curve. I’ve always been a pro­po­nent of con­tin­u­ing edu­ca­tion so learn­ing about the online world has also been one of the most stim­u­lat­ing aspects of Knowl­edge Ben­e­fits.

What are you most excit­ed about when it comes to Knowl­edge Ben­e­fits’ future?

Knowl­edge Ben­e­fits has nev­er been more impor­tant to the health ben­e­fits pro­fes­sion­al field. Health­care ben­e­fits con­tin­ues to be a very dynam­ic field with changes in every­thing from deliv­ery sys­tems, to elec­tron­ic access, to bet­ter cost and qual­i­ty data, as well as fed­er­al rules and reg­u­la­tions that start­ed with the Afford­able Care Act.

I’m excit­ed to know that we’re fill­ing a niche in terms of being able to help build that bench of peo­ple who love the ana­lyt­ics and love pop­u­la­tion health — peo­ple who are will­ing to nego­ti­ate for bet­ter health and bet­ter health­care for their employ­ees.

I find it dis­ap­point­ing that most employ­ers in the U.S. don’t demand a bet­ter qual­i­ty of health­care or nego­ti­ate ben­e­fits more force­ful­ly for them­selves or their fam­i­lies or their cowork­ers. But edu­ca­tion and know­ing what health­care could look like is the first step and that’s why we’re here. It’s why we’ve made the Knowl­edge Ben­e­fits cours­es rea­son­ably priced, acces­si­ble any­time, and designed for those who need cred­its for their SHRM recer­ti­fi­ca­tion.