BlueShield undergoing streamlining

Get the private office with a window, and you become the envy of co-workers. Keep it, and you become

Get the private office with a window, and you become the envy of co-workers. Keep it, and you become a prime candidate for office teasing.

Such is the plight of Robert Griner, BlueShield of Northeastern New York’s customer service manager for major accounts. As of last month, Griner became the only employee in BlueShield’s Latham headquarters to not move to a new desk.

“It was the luck of the draw. My service area was not moving,” said Griner, a 10-year BlueShield veteran.

Over the past six months, BlueShield has been quietly shuffling around its operations behind the tinted glass facade of its headquarters overlooking the Adirondack Northway.

The four-story building houses 260 workers and is located in the Century Hill Plaza off Route 9.

With its operations streamlined and claims being handled more efficiently, BlueShield says it will soon push to broaden its reach in northeastern New York. It has recently netted some major new customers, including the city of Amsterdam and Mold-Rite in Plattsburgh.

A small celebration marking the internal transformation of BlueShield’s headquarters is slated for Friday.

“It’s the most significant reorganization this company has ever gone through,” said Stephen Manzelli, general manager of self-insured accounts.

And that’s saying a lot. It was only in 2002 when the health insurer relocated its headquarters from Wolf Road in Colonie to Century Hill Drive.

To carry out the restructuring, BlueShield drafted new job descriptions for its entire work force and required over 200 employees to reapply for positions. Some workers sought employment elsewhere while others were turned away. But through it all, BlueShield’s work force ended up growing by about 16 percent from a year earlier, said company spokeswoman Karen Merkel-Liberatore.

The restructuring came as part of HealthNow New York’s initiative to streamline services at its health plans, which include BlueShield of Northeastern New York and BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York. For BlueShield workers in Latham, that means the insurer’s call center, sales and marketing, health care and government program staffers are no longer located in separate sections of the Century Hill Drive building or on different floors.

“It takes away all of those barriers and even removes those geographic barriers,” said Lee Castleman, general manager of major accounts.

Instead, workers in those departments operate in four newly created units that each specialize in a particular line of business. The business units include major group accounts with over 151 members, smaller general group accounts, self-insured accounts and government programs.

Griner managed to keep his second-floor desk because many customer service workers were divvied up between units headed by Manzelli, Castleman and Kathleen Slovic, the general manager of general business markets. “This is a very new premise. It did not get fully implemented across the organization since November,” said Merkel-Liberatore.

HealthNow underwent a similar restructuring last summer, when it relocated to a new headquarters in downtown Buffalo. The 469,000-square-foot building houses 1,200 workers. It was structured to accommodated business units similar to those in Latham.

Planning for the corporatewide restructuring started in November 2005. All of HealthNow’s employees — aside from its president and two vice presidents — had to reapply for their positions.

HealthNow ended 2007 with 815,000 members, up 5.2 percent from 775,000 a year earlier. Despite that 40,000-member gain — largely from its acquisition of Brokerage Concepts in King of Prussia, Pa. — HealthNow’s income declined.

The Buffalo insurer’s income last year fell 32.7 percent to $48.4 million. Attempts to keep premiums low and corporate restructuring efforts dug into its income. Revenues rose 1.4 percent to $2.14 billion.

Merkel-Liberatore would not say how many members HealthNow has in northeastern New York. Castleman said it is too early to tell how the restructuring will affect health insurance pricing.

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