There’s a new set of employer group insurance products being offered in the islands whose policies took effect Aug. 1. The man behind bringing them here is the same guy who last visited St. Croix nearly 20 years ago. Omar Haedo still remembers that day like it was yesterday.
“I brought Cigna here,” Haedo said. “I’m the guy who signed the Cigna contract of May 1, 1992 with the government … I was the culprit, I guess, of bringing Cigna to the islands.”
Now the exclusive agent for BlueCross BlueShield in the V.I., Haedo is now reaching out to independent brokers who serve the islands’ small businesses, a market previously underserved in the Virgin Islands. He said the new health plans are moving like “hotcakes.”
“I see a lot of employers who weren’t able to offer benefits that are now saying, ‘I want to do right by my employees,’“Haedo said. He said most small businesses are in the range of two to 10 employees.
“I saw a huge opportunity. I’m loading manuals with a lot and I’m still coming in 30 to 40 percent below our competitors,” he said. “I’m not giving it away. And that tells you the market has been dysfunctional without competition.”
President Steve Baker of Baker Magraf & Associates on St. Thomas agreed. Since 1998, his company has served group health plans and policies to more than 400 small businesses in the Virgin Islands. He joked that with his 150 clients on St. Croix, his outfit knows Seaborne Airlines and Hertz rental cars very well.
“Competition breeds good things for the marketplace,” Baker said. “Having someone as significant as BlueCross BlueShield is a major benefit for the Virgin Islands…We were begging for competition because it helps out our clients.”
Baker said with the only major players in the Virgin Islands being Cigna and United Healthcare, having a third carrier will create more “elbow room” with those other providers. He also thinks it sets BlueCross BlueShield up well for what will be their next big move and will come online within the next year – individual policies being offered to islanders and their families.
“What the Virgin Islands needs is a quality carrier with an individual product,” Baker said. “That’s the vehicle that will be responsible for getting more people insured.”
A 2009 survey conducted for the V.I.’s Bureau of Economic Research said 33,000 Virgin Islanders were uninsured. That same study said of those who are insured, 45.3 percent of them received coverage through their employer or that of their spouse and that 22.2 percent were covered by Medicare or Medicaid. Only 3.8 percent were covered by an individual policy, which gives Baker’s assessment merit.
Both Haedo and Baker said what makes BlueCross BlueShield beneficial to its clients is the specialized benefits that have been included for these island-specific policies. Those include vision, dental, access to V.I. Equicare (the directory of more than 400 in-network providers in the Virgin Islands), built in Medical Air Services Association (MASA) coverage, 24/7 care coordination with a travel concierge to assist when headed elsewhere, even a $75 reimbursable flight credit if you head off-island.
“All of the Virgin Islands is in-network. And in the U.S. you have the BlueCross BlueShield network , which is one of the largest in the country, plus Puerto Rico,” Haedo said. “We’re about access.”
Asked what it took to get this all set up, Haedo replied, “18 months of toil and tribulation.”
“It took a guy like Omar to get the 1000 moving parts needed to create this,” Baker said. “It really took a unique individual like Omar to create the BlueCross BlueShield franchise.”
“We’ve adapted to actually bring value,” Haedo said. “People ask me what’s in it for you and I say, ‘I’m fixing something that I created and got distorted,’ because to see competitors here with no small case options, and to see employers getting raped, and I hate to use that word but there really is no other word, but I see it as a great opportunity to create balance out of the imbalance.”