Heroes at the Ready: How This Major New York Health Care System Battled COVID-19 and Achieved Claims Management Excellence
In late November and early December of 2019, thousands of people were admitted to Chinese hospitals with a strange new virus.
People were so fatigued, they couldn’t climb a flight of stairs. Their bodies were racked by coughs.
Even as case counts rose, few were paying serious attention to the disease, which we now know as COVID-19. The virus was even being compared by some to the common flu.
But Northwell Health, the largest health system in New York State, knew that this virus had the potential to become a pandemic. They began monitoring the situation in December, just as scientists named the disease.
“One of the things that Northwell does very well is respond to crisis. We started monitoring what was going on in China in December,” said Joseph F. Molloy, vice president of workforce safety for Northwell.
Its early monitoring allowed the hospital system to act quickly once the virus hit American shores. The team created a command center made up of individuals from many parts of the company to prepare to keep its doctors and nurses safe while treating the virus.
Team members from clinical, finance, risk management, workforce safety teams and workers’ compensation teams worked to keep employees safe while they treated over 17,000 COVID-19 patients.
Operations ran so smoothly that, despite being in New York — one of the pandemic’s early hotspots — the team never ran out of personal protective equipment (PPE).
Keeping Health Care Heroes Healthy
Other companies may have paid lip-service to health care workers during the pandemic, but Northwell treated doctors and nurses like true heroes by making sure they could feel safe and secure while helping patients recover from a virus as dangerous as COVID-19.
Adequate PPE supplies — something that plagued hospitals across the country early on — was never a problem for Northwell. When it saw that the standard masks it kept in stock were unavailable, Northwell fit-tested 30,000 employees in less than three weeks. Staff never faced a mask shortage.
Despite these safety measures, some doctors and nurses contracting the highly-contagious virus was an inevitability Northwell was well prepared for.
When the pandemic struck, the team actively encouraged employees to file claims, and they would go into each claim with the assumption that the employee contracted the sickness while working in the hospital.
“COVID-19 has been so virulent, you couldn’t tell whether somebody got it on the job or in the cafeteria, or they got it commuting on the bus to and from work, whether they got it from home when they got it at the supermarket where they were shopping,” Molloy said.
“We made the decision early on that each and every case of COVID that came our way, we would investigate. We would go in with the assumption that the COVID infection was acquired at work, unless there was compelling evidence that there was no way that could have happened.”
Overall, Northwell saw almost 6,000 workers’ comp claims for COVID-19.
Employees were reporting their illnesses using everything from the online self-service system to calling human resources, employee health services or their direct supervisors.
With so many streams of information, Northwell wanted to be sure it had a workers’ comp claim on record for every employee. If COVID-19 ends up having long-term side effects, these records will be available to help them trace future claims back to the initial outbreak.
“Nobody knows the long term impacts of COVID,” Molloy said. “I have no idea what’s going to happen here, but we wanted to make sure that we were accounting for everyone who may have been exposed as a Northwell employee.”
The team worked with their TPA, Broadspire, to get the data sources from multiple streams integrated so that they could start adjudicating claims. They built a database with the employee health department to keep track of all the different sources of information.
Northwell Communicates During Crisis
Wrangling workers’ comp claims data wasn’t the only communications challenge Northwell would face during the pandemic. With more than 72,000 employees, communication across the company can be daunting, but Northwell knew that if departments weren’t moving in lock-step, the whole system wouldn’t respond effectively to the virus.
Information streamed in daily from the CDC, the state health department and Northwell’s own expert clinicians. The situation was changing rapidly as case counts rose and doctors’ understanding of the virus evolved. To make effective decisions, Northwell knew it needed to have all senior leaders in constant communication.
In January, it had opened its emergency operations command center, which brought together leadership from every part of the company from expert clinicians to financial leaders. “That kind of access to senior leadership allowed us to make decisions very quickly,” Molloy said.
Every morning, the emergency operations center team would receive updates from expert clinicians and the CDC with any new information that had been discovered about the virus.
In addition to their strong internal communications, leaders from Northwell have shared their crisis management knowledge throughout the industry in webinars and other thought leadership forums.
This strong coordination from leadership made employees feel secure that their company would help keep them safe on the frontlines and would care for them if they got sick.
“There were so many unknowns coming into this, as things were changing so rapidly, that I think our model was a rock. It was a solid place that people could rely on,” Molloy said.
Throughout the virus, the team at Northwell has been guided by a desire to do right by their employees: “We wanted our team members to understand that they needed to take care of the patients. We would help take care of them and make sure that they were receiving all of the benefits to which they were entitled,” Molloy said.
“It was like a safe haven for the employees. Call workforce safety. We’ll talk to you. We’ll help you through this process. You’ll be okay.”
It’s this guiding force that earned them a 2019 Teddy Award, a 2018 Teddy Honorable Mention and helped them through COVID-19. While the pandemic is far from over, Northwell Health has more than proved that anyone can achieve incredible results by putting employee health and safety first. &