When reports surfaced in early January of a deadly respiratory virus moving quickly through Wuhan, China, few Americans were overly concerned. While news accounts were troubling, the emerging danger was background noise for most Americans.

Premera Blue Cross CEO Jeff Roe was paying attention. And he was worried. Roe had been reading reports from scientists and analysts about the 41 people in China whose pneumonia-like illness had been traced to a seafood market. The virus was spreading rapidly in Asia and experts predicted that Seattle was certain to be affected. Sure enough, the first patient in the U.S. was diagnosed in late January in Snohomish County, right in Premera’s backyard. 

“It crystalized my own thinking about the situation and the need to act early,” Roe says.

Roe has a small pewter dish on the desk of his now-unoccupied office at Premera’s Mountlake Terrace headquarters. Engraved on it is a quote from investor, philanthropist and Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffet, which Roe says sums up the soul of his team of 3,400:

You dont need to have extraordinary effort to achieve extraordinary results. You just need to do the ordinary, everyday things exceptionally well.

(Story continues below video)

Facing extraordinary times, Premera workers made an exceptional shift. The coronavirus disruption could have significantly impacted the level of service Premera provides to its customers, compromising the employee team Premera calls family. Instead, Premera shifted thousands of employees to telework while cutting out-of-pocket costs to customers with COVID-19 and shoring up its philanthropic work.

From office to home

Soon after the country’s first coronavirus patient was identified in Everett — mere miles from Premera’s headquarters — Premera activated its crisis response team. Company leaders turned to its already-in-place pandemic plan, triggering a cascade of key decisions made to ensure employee safety and business continuity. On the evening of March 1, Premera issued its first virus-related directive to its employees to cancel all business travel and large meetings, and consider working remotely.

“We told them, ‘We are here, we support you,’” says Kacey Kemp, Premera’s executive vice president of operations and the leader of its crisis management team. “We gave them the signal that if anyone has the ability to work from home, they could do that.”

Premera is a major player among Washington and Alaska businesses. The not-for-profit health plan serves more than 2 million customers and contracts with a network of more than 38,000 doctors, hospitals and healthcare providers. With coronavirus bearing down, the company moved nimbly.

A grid of Premera employees working remotely
Premera Blue Cross acted quickly at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, shifting its thousands of employees to telework.

Around 200 employees in Premera’s Mountlake Terrace and Bothell offices took the company’s offer to head home, packing their computers, monitors, headsets and other equipment.  Approximately 300 more followed as the week progressed. By Monday, March 9, all Premera offices in Western Washington were closed and all but 100 essential workers were sent home. Days later, the Spokane and Anchorage locations did the same. The company’s IT and operations departments kicked into overdrive, working nearly nonstop to ensure employees had the tools they needed to continue working.

“We knew if we couldn’t take care of our employees, we couldn’t serve our customers,” says Chad Murphy, Premera’s chief clinical officer.

Keeping up with changing regulations

Premera’s efforts to protect its workforce matched those of Microsoft, Amazon, Weyerhaeuser and other large employers, and preceded by at least a week work-from-home edicts issued by most other Northwest companies. The decision has proven correct — Premera saw none of the outbreaks experienced at other workplaces that waited to close their doors.

With the necessary technology and security systems in place, Premera employees have been focusing on helping customers navigate the fast-moving changes and adjustments to their health care plans. On April 2, Premera announced that it is waiving consumer cost shares and deductibles for treatment related to COVID-19 for all fully insured, Medicare and individual market customers through Oct. 1. That means Premera and LifeWise Health Plan of Washington customers will pay nothing out of pocket for treatment of COVID-19 or health complications associated with the virus, including inpatient and outpatient hospital care, ambulance transfers, medications, and vaccines when they become available.

Premera employees have also worked to ensure customers can access 90-day medication supplies by mail order, eliminating trips to the pharmacy. Telehealth cost shares and deductibles are also waived so patients can consult with their doctors online instead of visiting a clinic or doctor’s office in person.

Premera is keeping its health care providers in mind as well. The company recently announced that it would provide up to $100 million in financial support in the form of advance payment of claims to medical, dental and behavioral health providers facing significant financial pressures due to the pandemic.

“They are on the front lines of this pandemic,” says Dr. John Espinola, executive vice president of health care services at Premera Blue Cross. “We have heard from many in our provider community who are experiencing lower revenues because patients are staying home and need financial help to get through this crisis.”

Taking care of the team – and beyond

Premera’s ability to pivot quickly during the crisis can in part be attributed to its embrace of telecommuting, says Cecily Hall, Premera’s senior vice president of employee experience. Before the COVID-19 crisis, more than 900 Premera employers were already full-time telecommuters. Those employees have helped pave the way for the influx of new work-from-homers just learning the nuances of videoconferencing and virtual meetings.

Premera’s existing business continuity plan also helped smooth the transition, dictating clear steps to take to ensure day-to-day operations continued relatively uninterrupted.

“We were able to identify within an hour who had to stay on campus and who could go home,” Kemp says.

Not forgotten in the flurry of rules changes and work-from-home decrees are the maintenance staff, food service workers and other vendors Premera has long relied on at its campuses. Premera has continued to pay these employees even though its buildings are empty; redirecting some to tasks like deep cleaning and sanitizing workspaces.

Premera continues its philanthropic efforts as well. The organization is contributing more than $450,000 to community foundations across Washington and Alaska to support vulnerable populations through Premera Social Impact, the organization’s philanthropic arm. The group is working with existing nonprofit partners to meet short- and long-term needs in response to COVID-19.

What a day looks like now

There’s nothing like a global pandemic to turn the way a company functions on its head. With nearly all Premera employees working remotely, videoconferences are often interrupted by barking dogs, needy children or inquisitive spouses suddenly appearing on camera, invited or not. Employees are taking it all in stride, and even embracing the quirkiness brought by this new way of working together. One even made a comical video about the situation.

“It’s made us all feel a little more human, a little more relatable,” Roe says. “On a regular basis I am inviting [employees] into my dining room and they’re inviting me into their homes.”

Kemp describes one Premera team that used to celebrate once a year with breakfast brought in by managers. That team kept the tradition alive by sending out meal coupons to employees, who then met on a video conference to share a meal with their coworkers.

“It’s bringing teams closer,” says Kemp. “Leaders are getting very creative about how to connect.”

While the embrace of telecommuting, a solid business continuity plan and a rapid IT response have all contributed to Premera’s success in meeting the challenges COVID-19 has brought, they’re no match for the organization’s real stars.

“The secret sauce is the Premera employees,” Roe says. “We have a unique esprit de corps. We come together to do the right things.”