Wednesday, February 8, 2006

Health insurers said they have hired extra workers or outsourced more business to keep up with surging customer inquiries over the new Medicare Part D drug benefit.

The program’s popularity, coupled with nationwide problems since its Jan. 1 start, has forced many insurance companies to deal with a jump in customer calls.

Part D, part of the federal health insurance program for the elderly and disabled, covers most or all of the cost of prescription drugs.

Companies said they have been increasing their staffs in recent months, but would not estimate how much the Medicare program has created in extra business for them.

Hartford, Conn., health insurer Aetna Inc. recently hired 50 employees to handle the company’s customer phone lines for its Medicare Advantage plan. The company also kept 20 temporary workers for when customer calls peak, such as during a last-minute enrollment rush in late December, said spokeswoman Betsy Sell.

“Some of this [extra work] was anticipated,” Mrs. Sell said, adding that the number of calls doubled from December to January. She would not provide specific numbers.

UnitedHealth Group, a Minneapolis insurance company that owns Mid Atlantic Medical Services LLC (MAMSI) of Rockville, “significantly expanded” its customer-service operations to 2,500 employees dedicated to the Part D program, said spokeswoman Joyce Larkin.

The company hired more customer representatives, created additional call centers and extended its hours of operation, Ms. Larkin said.

Cigna Corp., a Philadelphia health insurance company, partnered in May with NationsHealth Inc. — a Sunrise, Fla., pharmacy benefits company — to handle all of Cigna’s customer calls, said spokeswoman Gloria Barone.

Cigna processes its Medicare claims internally, but the outsourcing allowed the company to handle a large workload last month, Ms. Barone said, declining to give any contract terms.

“There were some transition issues the first week or two into the program. But we’ve been able to work that out, and our customer call volumes are returning back to normal,” she said.

The additional hiring is “inevitable” for companies involved with a complex program like Part D, said John Challenger, chief executive officer for Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., a Chicago outplacement company.

“I think there is no question that companies have had to beef up their staffs to manage the complexities” of the drug benefit, he said.

For CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, an Owings Mills, Md., health insurer for the Washington area, the number of additional workers being hired specifically for Part D work has been minimal, said spokesman Jeff Valentine.

The insurer hired a handful of employees for its communications and marketing segments of the health plan while continuing a long-standing contract with Argus Health Systems Inc., a Kansas City, Mo., pharmacy benefits administrator, Mr. Valentine said. He would not disclose financial terms.

“We’re trying to keep the costs as low as possible,” Mr. Valentine said, adding that the company gave the rest of its extra workload to its employees.

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