Over the past 16 years, Fidelis Care has built its membership rolls largely by courting uninsured patients at hospitals and federally qualified health centers throughout New York.
But these days — as the 14-month-old recession redefines the parameters of the uninsured — Fidelis representatives are increasingly showing up at Capital Region workplaces that have taken mass layoff actions. And as health coverage jitters haunt the middle class, the government-program health insurer is seeing its membership rise.
On Tuesday, Fidelis representatives made what has become their weekly trip out to the Scotia-Glenville Industrial Park to talk to employees at Super Steel. The train manufacturer in December announced plans to close its Glenville plant.
The phasing down of Super Steel’s plant through early April will put 175 employees out of work. Fidelis recently began tagging along for state Department of Labor “rapid response” sessions at mass layoff sites. At those sessions, agency staff provide workers facing layoffs with information on training and job search assistance programs available to them.
The Fidelis staff are filling a void in the Labor Department’s ability to provide detailed information on post-layoff health insurance coverage, said agency spokesman Leo Rosales. But he said there is no formal relationship between the Labor Department and the nonprofit insurer based in Queens.
“A lot of the questions coming in were about health coverage, and we needed to adapt to that,” said Rosales.
Fidelis is betting that the loss of paychecks from Super Steel will make many area families eligible for the low-cost health plans it offers. The insurer is also pitching its plans as cheaper alternatives to the extended health benefits laid-off workers can obtain under the federal COBRA program.
Under COBRA, workers can continue to receive health insurance coverage under their former employer’s plan for up to 18 months. But to receive that extended coverage, affected workers have to pay as much as 102 percent of their premium.
“That can be a daunting number for them,” said Fidelis Regional Director Jeff Collins.
Other area mass layoff sites Fidelis representatives have recently visited include Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy and National Gypsum and Computer Science Corp. in East Greenbush. Prior to the stock market’s plunge in September, the health insurer’s staff rarely made visits to such locations.
“It’s become more formalized as the number of layoffs and people affected has grown,” Collins said.
At the Labor Department, Rosales said “it’s not a secret” Fidelis is providing information about itself to affected workers. The agency is exploring whether it should continue working with Fidelis, further train its staff on health coverage matters or have state Department of Health employees provide that information at rapid response sessions.
Fidelis was founded in 1993 as the Catholic Health Services Plan of Brooklyn and Queens. It primarily offers low-cost health insurance through New York’s Family Health Plus and Child Health Plus and Medicaid programs.
Those government health plans cover regular checkups and other preventative care services, but eligibility for them is dependent upon a household’s gross income. For example, for adults in a family of four to receive free health care under Family Health Plus, the household’s annual income cannot exceed $33,000.
That threshold becomes a lot easier to qualify for after a layoff.
“You and I are one paycheck away from meeting this criteria,” said Collins.
In December, New York’s unemployment rate experienced its largest monthly jump on record, to 7 percent from 6 percent in November. In the Capital Region, the jobless rate hit 5.9 percent, its highest reading for the month since 1991.
Between September and January, Fidelis’ membership grew by 30,000 to 450,000 in 42 counties. During that period, the insurer added Schoharie County to its footprint; it will soon extend coverage to four more upstate counties.
Much of the health insurer’s growth during that five-month period occurred in New York City. But in Fidelis’ 19-county Northeast region, which stretches from Newburgh to Plattsbugh, its membership similarly rose 7 percent to 52,400.
“That rate is a stronger performance in terms of increasing our enrollment,” Collins said.
The toll the recession is taking on other health insurers’ membership ranks was apparent in the year-end results announced last week by WellPoint, the parent of Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield in New York. The Indianapolis insurer with 35 million members reported its medical enrollment by Dec. 31 had declined by 288,000 primarily due to layoffs, though its net membership rose in 2008.
MVP Health Care may face steep membership losses with International Business Machines and the Eastman Kodak Co. last month both announcing plans to lay off over 4,000 workers each. Over the past four years, the Schenectady health insurer with 706,500 members has developed strong relationships with those large New York employers.