Kaiser CFO Sandra Pham Discusses Internal Controls, Streamlining the Financial Close

Finance and accounting departments today are changing, becoming more flexible and focused at the same time. In conjunction with Financial Executives International, global staffing firm Robert Half recently released its fifth annual Benchmarking the Accounting and Finance Function report, which takes a look at this as well as areas including accounting operations, financial systems and internal controls.

Robert Half Finance & Accounting recently sat down with Sandra Pham, the vice president and CFO, Finance Operations, for Kaiser Permanente, to gain insights on how the health management organization is driving success, measuring the effectiveness of its financial department, and achieving its competitive advantage.

In her position, Sandra is responsible for the overall financial health and viability of the financial operations functions for the company.

The following Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: How has the structure of your accounting and finance department changed in recent years?

A: The structure of our department has evolved because we’ve had to shift as the work has changed. We’re moving from more routine reporting and record keeping to being able to do ad hoc analysis and respond to special analysis for projects. We’ve had to build a staff that can be more flexible – moving from routine to predictive analysis.

This has meant being more comfortable with not just reporting the numbers but interpreting them to help the people using them understand what they mean, where the limitations are and how they impact decision making.

Q: What has your department done to streamline its financial close and improve its processes?

A: There’s been an ongoing interest in improving our processes, particularly in terms of accelerating the close. The key reason is the need to have information more quickly – to get a sense of where we are, whether we’re on the course we need to be, or whether we need to rethink as we move forward with enough time to make thoughtful changes. 

We’ve looked at reducing our annual audit close period so that we have information that we can share more openly with the public at a time when it’s most relevant. 

We continue to try to manage account reconciliations in terms of improving the process. We’ve tried to automate as much as possible. We have implemented a new enterprise resource management system, which has been a key part of helping with that.

There are still processes that are managed manually, but we continue to look for opportunities to improve, not just because of the work efficiency but also as a way to increase the accuracy of the reconciliation process. 

Q: What are your thoughts on business intelligence?

A: Business intelligence is an area that’s interesting and exciting to us. With big data and the availability of new tools, we believe there’s a huge opportunity to leverage our information in a much more cohesive and comprehensive way than we’ve been able to do in the past.

Taking data that’s always been available in terms of reporting to create a fuller picture – to see connections in the information where there may not be a cause and effect relationship but there are correlations that we weren’t aware of. This may give us the ability to explore new opportunities.

Q: Have the number of internal controls increased within your department?

A: The number of internal controls has not really increased within in our department. What has occurred is that they are being scrutinized more frequently and the nature of the internal controls are changing. We routinely participate in rationalizing and reviewing the controls. This includes looking at areas that we originally thought were at risk, looking at how we are performing, and deciding whether they are still risky because of improvements that have been made.

Q: What regulations are impacting your department?

A: The regulatory changes we believe will have the greatest impact include the continual move from generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) to International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), trying to understand and map what we know now and understand how to report our information in a different manner.

Being in healthcare, we’re also focused on the Affordable Care Act. We have to reassess our federal and statutory reporting and see whether there are changes, implications, and different assessments in terms of definitions of which we need to be aware. It’s something we’re closely monitoring.