Health insurers mobilize for Sandy

Sandy closed some of the busiest bridges, tunnels and transit systems in the world. (LHP Photo/Allison Bell) Sandy closed some of the busiest bridges, tunnels and transit systems in the world. (LHP Photo/Allison Bell)

Hurricane Sandy has created a strange, creepy new universe for consumers, employers, producers and health insurance company staffers in the Northeast.

The self-proclaimed center of the media universe is now going through what communities in states like Florida and Texas have gone through regularly for years, without having as much experience with disaster preparedness.

Storm-related incidents have killed dozens, and floodwater has invaded thousands of homes and destroyed many cars. Aerial videos have shown that wind and flooding have devastated buildings right on the water and several blocks inland in communities between Atlantic City, N.J., and Jersey City, N.J. Natural gas fires have added to the damage in communities such as Mantoloking, N.J.

The National Guard was working Tuesday and Wednesday to get residents in communities like Hoboken, N.J. -- the location of a office -- out of buildings surrounding by ponds of oily water that are three to four high in places and contain large numbers of wriggling worms.

In a much wider area, storm damage has forced utility companies to turn off the power system to keep the damaged lines from causing transformers to explode.

Officials in New York, New Jersey and other affected areas have shut down flooded mass transit systems, bridges and tunnels, including the famed Holland Tunnel that links New Jersey with Manhattan. That has interfered with workers' efforts to get to work.

Crews are working around the clock to restore power, but many cellular telephone towers have exhausted their backup batteries and gone dark. Cell phone users in some areas wander the streets looking for points with a steady cell phone service and places where they can charge their phones.

The result has been that even banks, insurance companies and other companies that think of themselves as having extensive disaster plans have had trouble connecting bosses with workers in non-core areas and workers with the computer systems that are supposed to help the workers work at home.

Patients with worrisome, urgent problems that are not emergencies have had to go to hospital emergency rooms because, in many cases, physicians lack the physical ability to get to their offices and the electricity to run their offices. The hospitals have been the only health care facilities that are open, and, in some cases, the hospitals have been knocked out by the storms. 

New York University Langone Medical Center had to evacuate due to a loss of power, Bellevue Hospital tried to keep going with diesel-powered generators, but it had to evacuate patients today when the power stayed out and it appeared that the diesel fumes were affecting the patients.

Health insurers tried to prepare for Sandy before the storm came ashore.

Aetna, Cigna, UnitedHealth and WellPoint's Empire BlueCross BlueShield are some of the health insurers that announced relaxations of the normal network provider and prescription refill rules.

Aetna, for example, brought in generators before the storm and was able to give employees the ability to work from home before the storm started. It also provided alternative work locations for employees unable to work either at their usual offices or at home.

UnitedHealth is providing free access to an emotional support line at its Optum health unit. The telephone number for the unit is (866) 342-6892.

Cigna is making free access to its own emotional support line at (866) 912-1687.

But, even at some of the companies with detailed disaster plans, and backups to their backup plans, the extended lack of electricity, reliable cell phone service and access to fuel caused headaches, as did the fact that a cancellation of school forced working parents to line up informal backup daycare.

Many producers and executives have sent e-mails directing business associates and clients to contact them by calling personal cell phone numbers or sending e-mail to personal e-mail accounts, or they've simply posted Web announcements that their offices are closed until the situation gets closer to normal.

In the office in Hoboken, N.J., the building the office and the block it's on appear to have sustained little or no damage, but National Guard members are using boats to help people get out of buildings surrounded by 4 feet of water just a few blocks away. Some employees were able to get back on online by Wednesday, but others are in homes that still lack power, reliable cell phone service or both. 

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