Over the last year and a half, our team at the Benefit Funds has been working hard to build back the capacity of our health centers following the COVID-19 crisis.
As many of you know, at the beginning of 2021, we made the difficult decision to close the Harlem and Brooklyn health centers. Our healthcare system in New York City was designed to serve approximately 30,000 union-represented workers and their families – nearly 90,000 patients in total – but when the 8-month healthcare extension negotiated by the Union came to an end, the number of patients dropped to only 25,000 and contributions were reduced by nearly 85% throughout 2021. We had no option but to temporarily reduce services. The closures were brief – five months in Brooklyn and eight months in Harlem – but they had a significant impact on our operation.
As more members have gradually gone back to work and patients have returned to our centers, not only have we been hiring more doctors, nurses, and medical personnel and reopening departments, but we have also been implementing changes to improve our benefits, shorten wait times, and increase accessibility. Today, I’m proud to give you an update on our progress.
Over 115 Doctors, Nurses, and Medical Professionals Hired
Hiring has been the biggest challenge in reopening thus far. During the pandemic, we lost 67% of our team. While we attempted to rehire many former employees, some were committed to contracts at hospitals and other facilities, many had left the area, and others had retired. Therefore, we had to carefully interview hundreds of new candidates to find high-quality, committed medical staff to service our patients.
I’m happy to report that the Queens and Midtown health centers are now nearing 100% capacity and pre-pandemic staffing levels. We are also well on our way to rebuilding our team in Brooklyn and Harlem. We continue to interview new candidates, on average hiring a new medical provider every week.
Our Efforts to Shorten Wait Times
During this transition, there have been delays in scheduling appointments. Ensuring that patients can see their doctor in a timely manner is a top priority of the Funds and we’ve been working on reducing delays in a number of ways.
By far the biggest effort has been to hire more doctors. The average primary care physician in the United States treats 2,300 patients. We have successfully brought our levels below that. Primary care physicians at our health centers currently work with 1,500 to 1,800 patients, meaning our doctors can spend more time with each of their patients.
We’ve also made operational changes to reduce the number of missed appointments, as every appointment a patient misses is one that could have gone to another member in line. To reduce missed appointments, we have begun sending confirmation text messages. As a result, we have reduced the rates of “no-shows” from as high as 20% before the pandemic to 10%. With your help, we hope to see this number continue to drop.
Additionally, changes were made to cut down on unnecessary trips to the health centers. Previously, there were hundreds of appointments each year in which patients refilled prescriptions. We have significantly increased the number of drugs in our formulary which are eligible for a 90-day supply, cutting back on some appointments. Your medical provider will guide you on the best dosage for your unique needs. We have also started to do electronic consultations for dermatology appointments. Rather than making a separate appointment to see a dermatologist after meeting with a primary care physician, a nurse can take photos during the patient’s appointment and send them to a full-time dermatologist for review. The dermatologist can then begin treatment immediately, order prescriptions, or schedule an appointment when needed. We also expanded options for getting an eye exam. Patients can now see any outside provider for their exam and submit a reimbursement to the Funds (in addition to visiting any of our optometry centers to get an exam in-house.)
Expanding Specialties at the Health Centers
More specialists have been added to our team, allowing us to offer greater variety of appointments at each health center. In just the last few months, we reopened physical therapy, radiology, and lab services in Brooklyn and physical therapy, optometry, podiatry, endocrinology, and cardiology in Harlem.
All of our health centers currently provide:
– Primary Care (Adult and Pediatric)
– Main Medical Specialties (Podiatry, Cardiology, Endocrinology, Pulmonology)
– Dental Services (Note: Midtown Dental is provided at 14 Penn Plaza)
– Physical Therapy
– Laboratory Services
– Radiology (Coming to Harlem this November!)
– Centralized mental health services (14 Penn Plaza)
As a patient-focused healthcare plan (rather than a for-profit plan), we are constantly thinking of improvements and innovations to bring to our health centers.
HappyHealthyMe App: We have expanded services on our app, HappyHealthyMe. Using the app, HealtheLife, members can now book appointments with their primary care physician, view their upcoming appointments, access their charts and after-visit summaries, submit questions for our medical team, submit photos for dermatology consultations, and review their prescriptions. Patients are encouraged to sign up!
Easy Access to Vaccines: During cold and flu season, we are offering the flu and COVID-19 vaccines at every health center without an appointment. Members can simply walk-in and receive their vaccines at the Pharmacy (Queens, Midtown, and Brooklyn) and with a nurse (Harlem).
Oral Surgery (Coming Soon!): We have started construction on a new dental surgery wing at 14 Penn Plaza. We hope to have a dental surgery team working on implants and other oral surgeries by next Spring. Until then, these services will continue to be referred out.
Thank You –
The last few years have been, by far, the most challenging in the history of our Benefit Funds – not to mention for our patients, your Union, and the hospitality industry in New York City. I am deeply appreciative of your patience and understanding as we work to build back our operation. I look forward to a brighter future and to continuing to provide high-quality healthcare to you and your families.
Dr. David Jacobson
Chief Executive Officer
Employee Benefit Funds