Industry News

Navigating COVID-19 in the health insurance industry: The view from Premera Blue Cross

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a variety of challenges for payers, their employees and their members. It has required the health care industry to reach members and patients through different channels, providing answers and reassurance, and providing care in new ways. To learn more about the impact, SmartBrief spoke with Bill Akers, senior vice president of Premera Blue Cross’ Washington Group Market, about how his company is managing the challenges of this time.

What has been most challenging for your company and members during the pandemic?

The biggest challenge has been the speed of change coupled with meeting the mandates set down by state and federal regulators.

What have been the most important lessons, and how has your leadership navigated them?

We all realize the global pandemic has become our new normal. We have to advocate every day for our customers, who need us now more than ever, but we also have to stay focused on our long-term mission of making health care work better. That means not only providing a better customer experience and more virtual care options but also doing so more efficiently. If there is one key takeaway from the events of the last few months, it is that affordability is more important than ever. To meet these needs, our leadership team meets twice weekly to identify and respond to emerging issues. These meetings are predicated on rapid response, with the goal of executing on new strategies quickly.

Health plans did a lot to support members and health care providers as the scope of the pandemic became clear. What was the biggest change you made, and what was the impact?

We made several changes, including vastly expanding our medical and behavioral health virtual access in a matter of two weeks. We used both traditional virtual care providers like Teladoc and 98.6, as well as the emerging virtual options from our brick and mortar network providers. Our virtual care visits went from under 5,000 in January to more than 170,000 in March. Other meaningful changes were to extend our premium grace period an extra 30 days, offer premium relief for our group customers, and relax some of our eligibility rules while our customers, particularly in smaller companies, were trying to keep the doors open and people covered. We implemented an advance payment program to help providers keep their doors open. We also offered facility-based payment levels to brick and mortar providers when they performed virtual services as a way to help them through the lock down.

It seems clear that this industry will never be the same. Could you describe what you see as the new normal for the health care experience?

How customers purchase will be different forever, and hopefully that will mean an opportunity to focus on a new value propositions for the customer. Virtual care is here to stay, and it will result in a new competitive landscape for health plans. Customers who have traditionally been unwilling to consider narrower networks or creative benefit solutions are much more likely to do so now. They are finding that even with these so-called difficult tradeoffs, not only can they survive but they actually can even thrive in some circumstances.

Bill Akers is the senior vice president of Premera’s Washington Group Market and also oversees the product and market solutions functions.