“Our role as a leader in our community was tested by a real crisis, and we worked proactively to meet the challenge.” – Gregory E. Deavens, president and CEO
Independence Blue Cross (Independence) takes the mission to enhance the health and well-being of the people and communities we serve seriously, and it’s never been more important than it is today. As we pass a year since the Philadelphia region shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Independence leaders reflect on the company’s work to help members, customers, and the community — and on some of the important lessons learned during the public health crisis.
Over the past year, Independence has implemented clinical and business initiatives to support efforts to address COVID-19, including premium rebates and credits, provider support, donations, and more.
“Our role as a leader in our community was tested by a real crisis, and we worked proactively to meet the challenge,” said Gregory E. Deavens, president and CEO of Independence. “I am very proud that above all else, we maintained our commitment to our members and the community. We had to be nimble and creative, working with our partners to address a public health crisis like we have never before seen.”
Testing, treatment, telemedicine, and vaccines
In times of uncertainty, people look for security. During the pandemic, that included knowing their health care was covered.
“Our priority was to give our members and customers access to the testing and care they needed. We worked quickly to update existing policies and create new ones where needed, and we’ve extended and expanded those policies throughout the public health crisis,” said Dr. Richard Snyder, Independence EVP of Facilitated Health Networks and chief medical officer.
Since March 2020, Independence has:
- Waived member costs for COVID-19 diagnostic and antibody testing throughout the public health emergency (Independence also reimbursed members if they were charged).
- Waived member costs for COVID-19 care through March 31, 2021, for in-network inpatient and acute care treatment.
- Expanded coverage for telemedicine services for many COVID-19 related and non-COVID-19 related diagnoses.
- Covered and waived cost-sharing for vaccine administration for all commercial members, including copays, deductibles, and coinsurance.
As the health care industry adjusted to life during the pandemic, one noticeable change was the tremendous growth of telemedicine.
In 2020, Independence saw more than 1.8 million telemedicine claims, a tremendous jump from less than 18,000 telemedicine claims in 2019.
“The pandemic caused us all to make changes. That includes how we receive our health care. It forced people to embrace technology that otherwise may have taken them longer to adopt, like telemedicine,” Dr. Snyder said.
Mental health comes into focus
“Now, more than ever, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to take care of each other.” – Dr. Richard Snyder, EVP of Facilitated Health Networks and chief medical officer
Beyond the physical impact of COVID-19, there are critical mental health challenges caused by loss, stress, isolation, and financial hardship. According to a Centers for Disease Control study, 40 percent of U.S. adults reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse in June 2020. Independence was ready to respond, and the company saw a 14,000 percent increase in the use of mental health telemedicine in 2020 compared to 2019.
“We simply cannot think about health and well-being anymore without taking into consideration mental and emotional health. Now, more than ever, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to take care of each other,” Dr. Snyder said.
Efforts to address the mental health needs of members and the community included:
- Partnering with the City of Philadelphia to launch a comprehensive campaign, #mindPHL Together, to raise awareness of public mental health resources. The campaign focused on reducing stigmas, encouraging Philadelphians to seek help, and offering support to those impacted by mental health challenges. There were special promotions during Minority Mental Health Awareness Month and the Wawa Welcome America festival included in the campaign.
- Launching the Know Your Mind public health campaign, which is focused on raising awareness and understanding of depression and anxiety.
- Giving members free access to the Quil Health COVID-19 preparedness tool and the Stop, Breathe & Think app.
- Reminding members that they have access to practical help for stress reduction and improved sleep through Achieve Well-being and cognitive behavioral therapy for conditions like anxiety, depression, and insomnia through On to Better Health.
- Announcing a partnership with Quartet Health to launch a whole-person health initiative in Southeastern Pennsylvania to address behavioral health needs by helping people easily access the most appropriate care for them.
Offering financial support for customers
“We’re making decisions to alleviate the financial burdens our clients may be facing where possible.” – Brian Lobley, chief operating officer and president of Health Markets
The financial pain people are feeling due to the COVID-19 pandemic is significant. Independence has worked to ease this burden with expanded financial support to fully insured customers through medical and dental premium credits as well as premium rebates due to the effective management of medical costs. We returned nearly $120 million in premiums alone.
During the pandemic, Independence has accepted credit card payments and offered deferred payment plan options for group customers with fewer than 500 enrolled employees. And for those with individual coverage, Independence has offered grace period flexibility and credit card payment options.
“We know many of our customers have had difficulties managing costs during this time when business has been interrupted. We’re making decisions to alleviate the financial burdens our clients may be facing where possible,” said Brian Lobley, Independence chief operating officer and president of Health Markets.
Reaching out to the community’s most vulnerable
“Creating a more equitable health care system includes acknowledging that health not only happens in the doctor’s office but in our members’ homes and communities.” – Daphne Klausner, senior vice president of Government Markets
In any crisis, the most vulnerable populations are likely to suffer the most serious effects, and COVID-19 is no exception. Independence launched several initiatives to support our region’s seniors, those with chronic illnesses, nonprofits, and more. These initiatives include:
- Scheduling appointments for vaccination for our most vulnerable seniors at regional pharmacies and certain health systems.
- Opening our customer and community center, Independence LIVE, as a vaccination site in a collaboration with vybe urgent care centers.
- Connecting with more than 12,000 at-risk Medicare members through Calls of Kindness. The purpose of these casual, friendly calls is to give comfort and support to those who need it.
- Offering 20,000 grocery deliveries at no cost for Independence Medicare Advantage members with United By Blue, a Philadelphia-based company.
- Launching CommunityLink™ with Signify Health to build a network of community-based organizations to break down barriers between clinical care and social needs to improve the health of seniors in the Philadelphia region.
- Continuing to make registered nurse health coaches available 24/7 for member questions. These nurses, along with the company’s Member Health Team, have also made 26,000 proactive calls to high-risk Commercial and Medicare members with chronic conditions.
“Creating a more equitable health care system includes acknowledging that health not only happens in the doctor’s office but in our members’ homes and communities,” “We work to identify obstacles our members may be facing and offer solutions that are available to them right where they live through this new network,” said Daphne Klausner, senior vice president of Government Markets at Independence.
Addressing health inequities
Health disparities persist across Philadelphia, with economically disadvantaged populations often disproportionately impacted by higher incidences of diseases. The COVID-19 pandemic has only magnified those inequalities. COVID-19 hospitalization rates among African American, Hispanic, and Latino people have been about 2.9 times the rate of their white counterparts, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“It’s clear that COVID-19 has further exposed health inequities in our communities, and we need to take action,” CEO Deavens said. “Diversity, equity, and inclusion is a corporate value for Independence, and a commitment to diverse and underserved communities is deeply ingrained in our history and our culture.”
Independence has focused on education and assistance for communities of color that have been disproportionally affected. These efforts include:
- Supporting the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium. With the help of Independence’s contributions to the PHL COVID-19 Fund, this organization has been able to work to address community needs for food insecurity and access to COVID-19 testing and vaccination in under-resourced communities.
- Supporting the American Red Cross with a $75,000 pledge for COVID-19 efforts.
- Joining with the White House, the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, and America’s Health Insurance Plans in the comprehensive effort to vaccinate two million at-risk seniors age 65 and over in underserved and vulnerable communities.
- Focusing placements of the Beat COVID-19 public health campaign in print and electronic media outlets that reach African American and Latino communities in the City and region.
- Launching the Our Community. Our Health. campaign with The Philadelphia Tribune, Philadelphia’s oldest and largest African American newspaper. The public health campaign is focused on combatting the disproportionate rates of diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease — and, as a result, COVID-19 — impacting the African American community.
Supporting regional providers and health systems
“The pandemic opened up new lines of communication and identified new opportunities to work together.” – Dr. Richard Snyder
There have been many heroes during the pandemic, especially the skilled people on the front lines of providing care.
“Health care providers have done an outstanding job fighting the pandemic and caring for the people in our region. However, it has been difficult and many of them have recognized the value of working together with partners like us to fight this common enemy,” Dr. Snyder said. “The pandemic opened up new lines of communication and identified new opportunities to work together.”
Throughout the pandemic, Independence has been collaborating with and supporting regional providers, hospitals, and health systems by:
- Launching a coalition of regional home care providers to develop common COVID-19 protocols and a shared capacity database.
- Launching the second and third years of Celebrate Caring, an annual multimedia campaign to recognize outstanding nurses in the region.
- Creating the COVID-19 Provider Hub.
- Advancing performance-based incentive payments into mid-year 2020.
In addition to all of these efforts, Independence worked to provide timely and accurate information to members through a dedicated COVID-19 website, which was named “Best in Class” by the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association. The organization developed a COVID-19 vaccine website; a COVID-19 Business Hub; and a Beat COVID-19 public awareness campaign site as well.
The Independence Blue Cross Foundation: Assisting regional nonprofits
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, nonprofits nationwide have faced the triple challenge of meeting the demand for social services while delivering care safely and maintaining sustainable funding. In the past year, the Independence Blue Cross Foundation (IBC Foundation) continued to serve as a leader to nonprofits in the southeastern Pennsylvania region as part of its commitment to improve health and health care access in underserved communities.
With charitable grant awards totaling more than $5.5 million in 2020 and $2 million dedicated to nonprofit sustainability and COVID-related efforts to date, the IBC Foundation has:
- Dedicated $1.4M in charitable grants to nonprofit sustainability and COVID-related efforts.
- Dedicated $750,000 in grants to improve access to COVID-19 education, testing, and vaccination.
- Donated $500,000 to the PHL COVID-19 Fund, the region’s rapid response aid for health and human service organizations.
- Supported the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium.
- Joined the Pennsylvania Department of Health and Latino Connection to support CATE, the state’s first mobile COVID education and testing response unit to reach underserved communities in the region.
The IBC Foundation is continuing to fund efforts that improve community access to COVID-19 testing and vaccination, including a $250,000 grant to support the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia school vaccine program awarded in March this year.