Extraordinary organizations step up to meet new challenges


In ordinary times, we see Optum clients all across the country going to great lengths to serve their communities and their employees. These are not ordinary times.

Over the past few months, we have seen them do extraordinary things — pivoting operations to serve new needs — even as they themselves, like all of us, face great adversity and uncertainty.

Here we’ve compiled stories from four clients. Together they have significant operations in nine states — from California to North Carolina and Texas to Michigan.

Our stories start in Arizona.

Banner University Medical CenterBanner University Medical Center: Members of the culinary department at Banner Health facilities in Arizona

Feeding families on the front line

Many of us have been through it in recent weeks — the uncertainty, or outright fear, that comes with the once mundane chore of grocery shopping.

It’s something Jeff Gilmore and Brad Littlejohn are trying to help their colleagues avoid.

“There’s people not wearing masks. You can be walking down an aisle and if someone sneezes or coughs, you just don’t know,” says Gilmore.

Gilmore and Littlejohn help run the culinary departments at Banner Health facilities in Arizona. They’re in charge of providing meals to the medical staff while on duty.

They recently expanded their duties. They’re now helping to feed those front-line workers outside of work — their families too.

“The last thing anybody wants to think about is going to the store, having to put the mask back on, worrying what other people are out there,” says Littlejohn. “The safest thing is just getting home to their families and not having to make any stops.”

At Banner University Medical Center – Phoenix, Littlejohn came up with a solution: Set up a grocery store in the cafeteria and stock it with what they have on hand.

Some items were already in consumer-friendly sizes — milk, cheese, tortillas, berries. Others had to be modified — 50-pound boxes of potatoes were divided into five-pound bags, 30-egg crates were cut in half. It’s all sold at-cost.

They also started making take-home meals for four — all the ingredients plus instructions.

At Banner Behavioral Health Hospital in Scottsdale, Gilmore set up a store as well. He got a request we can all relate to.

“A nurse asked, ‘Can you get toilet paper?’” he recalls. “So, I got with our supply chain and we started getting toilet paper and selling it in our micro store.”

Wilmington HealthWilmington Health: Patients are screened going into the clinic

Hurricane experience

Wilmington Health is accustomed to challenges. The community it serves, located on the beautiful North Carolina coast, is frequently threatened by hurricanes. It was hit hard by Florence less than two years ago.

“Seeing all that we did to recover from that and how we pulled it off,” recalls Wilmington CEO Jeff James. “I would say that now pales to this.”

Wilmington Health is a physician-owned group practice with 200 providers, including a team of infectious disease experts.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, none of those providers had treated a patient via telehealth. That needed to change — fast.

“From communication plans, to vendor selection and implementation, to training, both staff and providers, duties were assigned, and we had multiple meetings every day to coordinate,” explains James. “It started on a Friday and by Monday we were done.”

Today, 100% of Wilmington Health providers have delivered care remotely.

That’s just one of many milestones the system has achieved to serve its community in this unprecedented crisis.

A few examples:

  • The first to establish open-air testing
  • The first to test city-wide and the first to resume testing once it was available again
  • Converted an ambulatory surgery center to a hospital complete with a functioning emergency room

And if all that wasn’t enough, Wilmington Health has taken on an education role. They partnered with another area health system to produce public service announcements now airing on local TV stations. They’re impassioned pleas to the community to do all it can to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Watch two of the PSAs here and here.

This hurricane-tested health system is being stressed like never before. James marvels at how his team is handling it.

“If someone would have drawn this up a year ago and asked, ‘If this happens, could your organization survive?’ I would have said, ‘I don’t think so,’” he says. “The resiliency of this organization is unbelievable. I feel truly honored to work with these people.”

Jen PurslowThe CORE Institute: Jen Purslow, Senior Vice President of Revenue Cycle and Patient Access

A surgical pivot

We’re all staying home to stay safe, but that doesn’t mean we might not need medical attention at some point.

Jen Purslow and her team saw that early on.

“It seemed like a lot of people were starting to do special projects around the house. So, there was still that opportunity of somebody getting hurt.”

Purslow is senior vice president of Revenue Cycle and Patient Access at The CORE Institute, an orthopedic practice group in Arizona and Michigan.

When elective surgeries were stopped, she and the CORE team saw another need to fill. They converted most of their clinics to what they call “urgent ortho” — treating the kinds of injuries that can’t wait until the pandemic is over.

“Patients could come see us, our trained orthopedic surgeons or mid-level providers to get help with any of their care needs,” explains Purslow. “That allowed hospitals to remain focused on the COVID patients.”

CORE’s effort is helping to keep hospital emergency rooms less crowded. It’s also giving those suffering injuries a safer place to get help, away from patients being treated for COVID-19.

And for those who might not be sure if they need an in-person visit, CORE launched a telehealth option.

For Purslow, it’s been an opportunity to witness her team at their best.

“Most of it was their mentality. ‘What can I do to help?’ I think it’s been an honor for most of them to chip in and make sure the patients were being taken care of and we’re taking care of each other,” she says.

“I’m proud of them for sure. I’m honored to be in that same circle with them.”

Rita KingBBVA USA Bancshares: Rita King, Vice President and Benefits Consultant of Employee Benefits

Lessons learned in Spain

OptumRx client BBVA USA Bancshares is different. Just ask Rita King.

“This is the first company that I’ve worked for where ‘the customer comes first’ permeates everything we do,” she says.

King is the vice president and benefits consultant of Employee Benefits, a part of BBVA’s Talent and Culture department — what other companies might call human resources. She sees BBVA’s employees as her customers. Because of COVID-19, serving those customers has become more critical than ever before.

She credits a recent culture shift at BBVA for much of what they’ve been able to do. The bank went through what’s known as an “Agile transformation” — transforming to become more flexible and collaborative in how it operates.

Communicating across departments helped to more quickly identify issues and find solutions.

Issue one was preventing the spread of COVID-19 among employees. Lessons learned by BBVA’s parent company, based in Spain, were key.

Where the wave hit first in Spain, BBVA employees notified the company when they had symptoms of the virus and then they were subsequently quarantined.

In the U.S., BBVA urged employees to alert their managers if they thought they might have been exposed. A triage line armed with CDC guidelines and an on-staff doctor would then help decide if an employee should be quarantined and any contacts notified.

BBVA has also gone to great lengths to help its employees deal with the indirect impacts of COVID-19.

A big one, says King, was the loss of human contact — people accustomed to in-person collaboration were suddenly working alone at home.

Establishing regular meetings via web conferencing helped.

“Everybody’s there in no makeup, dogs are sitting in laps, you’re discussing what’s going on for the day,” she explains. “You’re laughing instead of being stressed. You’re able to see the other person and you know you’re all in this together.”

A few other examples of BBVA’s employee assistance efforts:

  • Daily updates with information about resources and critical information like increased prescription flexibility
  • Telehealth visits via a staff clinician
  • A diabetes-reversal program
  • No co-pays for COVID-19 testing or treatment
  • Extended Pandemic leave with 10 days of paid time off
  • 100% pay, even when issues like childcare make it impossible to work
  • A compassion fund to provide fast financial relief to address unforeseen circumstances

At BBVA, the customer does, indeed, come first.

“We are a bank that is about people,” says King. “And we care about our people.”

Katrina CattoBanner Health Urgent Care: CEO Katrina Catto

An urgent care transformation

The coronavirus pandemic has had a huge impact on health care. One of the most concerning effects: Suddenly, a lot of people who need it are not seeking it.

Banner Health saw it happen. While its 50 urgent care facilities in Arizona and Colorado were busy, they were seeing a lot less of what they’d normally treat — things like UTIs, sprained ankles, and lacerations.

It’s not that they weren’t happening. They were. The patients were just staying home — afraid if they went to an urgent care, they might contract COVID-19.

Banner Health took action. It designated five of its urgent care locations — four in Arizona, one in Colorado — as non-respiratory illness sites: safe spaces for those seeking treatment for non-COVID-19 issues.

Patients are screened at the door. Any displaying CDC-designated COVID-19 symptoms are sent to one of Banner’s other urgent cares. The five sites were chosen specifically because there are others nearby.

“We stood up a telehealth line as well,” explains Banner Health Urgent Care CEO Katrina Catto. “Our telehealth providers speak with patients calling in with complaints. If it’s something that we can’t deal with over the phone, that we really need an in-person visit, that telehealth provider can send that patient to one of the non-respiratory locations as long as it’s not COVID-related or COVID-concerning.”

The non-respiratory urgent care facilities are now performing another critically important service. Elective surgeries are back on, and Banner Health is helping clear the pre-op visit backlog.

Catto points out that while the surgeries are labeled “elective,” that doesn’t mean they’re not important.

“I have a patient with a fractured patella (kneecap) that has waited eight weeks for her surgery because it was not considered an emergent procedure,” she says. “We’ve also had patients with breast cancer whose stage of cancer has not been considered emergent who are waiting for their procedures as well.”

In just the first two weeks, Banner Health’s urgent cares saw 4,500 pre-op patients, getting them an important step closer to their much-needed treatments.

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