By Mark Guydish, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader
Since Highmark Health took over Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania, there has been no shortage of rumors, most often concerning layoffs.
They were rumors Highmark officials downplayed, though in November 2016 a spokesman did admit the workforce had been whittled a bit, to 795 employees in the 13-county area formerly served by BCNEPA.
But now, Senior Vice President Brian Rinker has good news.
“Over the last year or so, we have increased our workforce in our Wilkes-Barre office, and we do expect this trend to continue,” he said. “This job growth is a reflection of both the growing needs of the Highmark organization and the quality of the local workforce to meet some of these needs.”
The truth is, after the acquisition of BCNEPA, Highmark officials participating in teleconferences to update media on company progress often focused on western Pennsylvania, where the company was working to iron out glitches in some programs.
One example of that focus: Gov. Tom Wolf recently announced Highmark reached an agreement with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center to assure greater access to a wide range of services in western Pennsylvania.
The northeast part of the state, by comparison, got little attention other than to note things were going well.
But company officials have always touted progress, and Rinker, who focuses specifically on this region, did the same.
“The merger with Highmark has also been good for the regional health insurance marketplace as we have been able to introduce new and enhanced products and services to meet the changing health care needs of NEPA consumers.
“Some of the job expansion is associated with Highmark’s national dental insurance company, United Concordia,” he added.
Highmark regularly announces new services, coverage or options available here. Most recently, in November, the company started covering diabetes prevention programs like one offered at the Wilkes-Barre YMCA.
Earlier in 2017, Highmark instituted the “True Performance” program designed to reward physicians for positive patient outcomes. The program offers reimbursement incentives to primary care doctors to keep patients healthier through things like recommended immunizations, cancer screenings and annual wellness exams.
From the start of the acquisition of BCNEPA, Highmark officials said the goal was to expand services in the region, which in turn would mean expanding the workforce. Rinker noted that means more than just putting additional people on the payroll.
“More employees at Highmark means more people shopping downtown, eating at downtown restaurants and otherwise supporting local businesses and services,” he wrote in an email. “We also support many local vendors that help keep our business running on a day-to-day basis.”
Highmark has also been quick to make its presence felt in the community beyond the business end of things.
Employees are often found helping out with things like the United Way of Wyoming Valley Day of Caring. In January, employees purchased and donated gifts to Children’s Service Center of Wilkes-Barre. And last September, they helped at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Northeastern Pennsylvania Back-to-School Health Fair.
“Highmark has a long history of supporting the communities we serve,” Rinker wrote, “and since the merger, we’ve actually increased our community commitments in north central and northeastern Pennsylvania through grants, sponsorships and other forms of support.”