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COVID-19: Highmark BCBS helps schools cut PPE supply costs and wait times

Published November 17, 2020
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Personal protective equipment, or PPE, is still in short supply for some communities and organizations across the country. PPE can also be expensive or take months to arrive. That was the problem facing school district Keystone Oaks near Pittsburgh, Pa. Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield saw an opportunity to use its community connections and negotiating power to solve those problems and help schools prepare for the return of staff and students.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield (Highmark BCBS), like other health plans, mobilized to get PPE supplies to frontline healthcare workers and others at immediate risk in the region.

A new PPE need on the horizon: schools

Over the summer, it became clear another community would need access to more PPE, and quickly: schools. The health plan got to work examining the options. Prices were climbing, and supplies weren’t always readily available. What’s more, says Craig Riner, senior vice president of strategic marketing for Highmark BCBS, “We needed to look at staggered delivery for schools with different timelines. PPE materials can expire,” he says, so they couldn’t sit around for too long. Highmark BCBS committed to finding the supplies and donating what schools needed at the beginning of the school year, knowing that some children would be in school buildings part of the week for a mix of at-home and at-school learning.

PPE prices were rising

Meanwhile, Dr. William Stropkaj, Superintendent of Keystone Oaks School District in Pittsburgh, says his administration was pricing out PPE, and the costs some suppliers quoted were unsustainable. “We have seen such a large uptick in pricing,” says Stropkaj. “One company told me they could supply us regularly, but for tens of thousands of dollars a month.” That, says Stropkaj, was too much. And the needs weren’t just confined to school buildings. “We have a lot of families that can’t afford masks and other supplies,” says Stropkaj.

Plus, schools would need more than just masks. “They needed face masks, face shields, disinfectant wipes, gallon bottles of hand sanitizers with pumps,” says Riner. He says schools also looked to the health plan as a trusted source of information about COVID-19. They would end up using Highmark BCBS-developed posters and printed materials to put up around school buildings as reminders of how to prevent the spread of the disease.

Local businesses redeploy employees to make PPE

To address rising prices and the difficulty of sourcing PPE when needed, Riner knew he had to diversify the supply pipeline and negotiate better prices for future purchases. The plan ended up benefitting more than just schools, but local businesses suffering in the shaken economy.

“We landed on three local businesses to be our partners,” says Riner, “that were able to pivot to mask-making.” Employees with those businesses received the training they needed to sew and produce masks. More than 20 people were employed. Their efforts built an initial stockpile for schools. In total, enough supplies were provided for each student and staff member for over 500 school districts in Highmark BCBS’s footprint of Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Then, Highmark BCBS ensured the next batch of PPE would be—and stay—affordable. “We negotiated a bulk price with suppliers and an agreement that they will protect that price for schools,” says Riner. The health plan created a website where schools can place ongoing PPE orders with the special pricing.

A steady, affordable supply of PPE

Superintendent Stropkaj is thrilled with the arrangement. The first batch of free supplies made an obvious difference. But knowing there will be a steady supply of materials needed down the road, at a steady price, has also eased his mind.

“I have to thank Highmark BCBS for listening to what we needed,” says Stropkaj. He says he cares about his school district every day, all 1900 students and 285 employees. And times are stressful. “Who’s going to come down with COVID next? Which classroom am I going to have to quarantine next?” Stropkaj asks. But knowing his district has the right PPE to stay safe takes one worry off his plate.

Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield is an independent licensee of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, an association of independent, locally operated Blue Cross and Blue Shield companies.

The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association is an association of 36 independent, locally operated Blue Cross and/or Blue Shield companies.