The coronavirus (COVID-19) has paralyzed much of California. Schools and businesses are closed. Hospitals are bracing for a potential flood of patients. Gov. Gavin Newsom has declared a state of emergency. And stay-at-home orders are being issued across the state.
At Blue Shield of California, we’ve been monitoring the outbreak since January, tracking the spread, planning and keeping our members informed and healthy, as well as ensuring our more than 6,800 employees are working – and safe.
“Thanks to our dedicated and hard-working employees, this pandemic will not affect our ability to serve our members,” said Paul Markovich, president and CEO. “Our focus on transforming and modernizing our operations in recent years helped us adapt and respond quickly to the realities of the coronavirus pandemic.”
Blue Shield has taken multiple steps to provide coverage and information to members. Among them:
- Blue Shield has waived prior approval and copayments for screening and testing associated with COVID-19. The copay waiver is for COVID-19 screening and testing only – not treatment.
- Announced it was monitoring prescription drug supplies and said members can request early refills of their prescriptions.
- Provided information on the mental health challenges in coping with the outbreak.
- Waived copayments for most members for use of our Teladoc virtual care service through May 31. Members should log in to their online account to see if their plan includes Teladoc service. Click here for more information.
- Opened regular communications channels with federal, state and local officials, agencies and regulators to coordinate an effective response.
- Created a dedicated COVID-19 website to inform members of their coverage under specific plans.
- Announced a new digital tool for its network hospitals at no additional cost to help them triage the influx of patients seeking advice on coronavirus or other medical care. (Blue Shield has 347 hospitals in its preferred-provider network.)
In addition, members haven’t had unusual hurdles to getting answers or help. Members, understandably, are asking questions about testing (you can find information about that here). Call centers and member points of contact at Blue Shield are running without disruption. The customer service team hasn’t seen any significant spikes in call volume or requests from members. And they’ve been prepped in five key areas:
- Members with questions about coronavirus, including testing
- Medicare members, largely comprised of high-risk populations
- Medi-Cal members, which include many of our state's most vulnerable populations
- Consumers, who have no other means for coverage
From the office to the home
By mid-February the plan’s business leaders were planning for what could be a major disruption. A working group, the Coronavirus Business Continuity Task Force – an extension of the group that deals with how to keep Blue Shield running during disasters and emergencies – was formed and began meeting daily.
At issue: how to get nearly 7,000 employees to work from home without disruption for members – at a time when members may tax Blue Shield’s call centers and other customer-facing operations.
Blue Shield has seven major offices. It’s headquartered in Oakland, but operates locations in El Dorado Hills, Lodi, Monterrey Park, Rancho Cordova, Redding and Woodland Hills.
Keep in mind, just 10 percent of Blue Shield employees had work-from-home capability before the virus arrived in California.
The good news: Blue Shield’s information technology team had a network in place to get all employees access. And the internal communications team has been notifying employees of policies and procedures. The not-so good news: not everyone – roughly 2,000 employees – had a portable device, such as a laptop, to make the transition easily.
“We’ve needed some sacrifices and some long days from our teams for which we’re deeply grateful,” said Shayna Schulz, senior vice president of enterprise transformation. “But we’ve also had some great planning in place. All of those factors have led to our success and readiness.”
By Tuesday, March 17, all but a handful of employees were at-home workers – with secure connections to protect sensitive data, if they handled it. Just 50 employees were considered essential for coming into the office. The task force is taking all necessary steps to ensure private health information is protected as a priority during this transition.
Ready for the worst
The task force continues to troubleshoot and aid employees. The group has been led primarily by Schulz, who manages the plan’s back office operations including claims and enrollment, and Jeff Robertson, senior vice president and chief marketing and customer officer, who manages, among other duties, all call centers. Lisa Davis, Blue Shield’s newly named chief information officer has also played a key role.
"In just five business days, we moved an entire workforce to work from home, including 2,000 front-line team members,” Robertson said. “I’m so proud of each of every team member who worked effortlessly over the past few days and over this weekend in an effort to continue to serve our members.”
Separately, new polices for compensation and leave for employees who test positive for the virus were put in place.
There are risks the spread of the virus could reach critical levels. There’s a plan for that, too. The task force has scenarios and plans for the hopefully unlikely event of 40 percent of workers not being able to work.
“We are supporting our members, employees, friends and families and our communities to slow the spread of COVID-19,” Markovich said. “The safety and wellbeing of our employees and members is a priority and our decisions as a company are guided by that.”