Sierra Military adds program for retirees

Baltimore-based health services firm adding 100 workers

September 26, 2001|By M. William Salganik | M. William Salganik,SUN STAFF

Baltimore-based Sierra Military Health Services Inc. is adding 100 workers to administer a new program providing health benefits to military retirees and their dependents.

The launch of the new program Oct. 1 is another growth spurt for Sierra Military. Formed in 1998 to provide health coverage for active military, retirees under 65 and their dependents in the Northeast, Sierra Military initially expected to have about 500 employees and annual revenue of $235 million.

As the military health program - called Tricare - added more benefits and members, Sierra Military grew to 600 employees, and will reach 700 with the latest expansion, according to David R. Nelson, president of Sierra Military. It now expects revenue of about $400 million next year, 70 percent above original projections.

Of the 100 added workers - about half are already hired - about 70 will join 400 at the Baltimore headquarters, with the remainder going to small service offices throughout the Northeast.

Baltimore provided a $500,000 package of loans, grants and job training in 1998 to lure Sierra Military and its jobs. As part of the deal, the city also guaranteed a 10-year lease for Sierra's 83,000 square feet in the Candler Building at 111 Market Place.

Now, according to Nelson, Sierra has expanded to an additional 15,000 square feet in the Candler Building, and is adding another 15,000 square feet at 34 Market Place to handle Tricare for Life, the new program for military retirees over 65 and their dependents.

Nelson estimates that 240,000 people in the 12 Northeastern states where Sierra Military operates will be eligible for Tricare for Life, which provides benefits - including unlimited prescription drugs - to supplement Medicare, the standard federal program for people over 65.

The new program should prove popular, said Joyce Raezer, associate director for government relations for the National Military Family Association.

"We were surprised at the robust benefit," she said "This is the gold standard. This is a wonderful benefit."

John Grady, communications director for the Association of the United States Army, agreed. "We were extremely happy" when Congress approved the program last year, he said. "This has been one of the cornerstones of our campaign for the last 15 years."

Military retirees have been able to get care at military health facilities, such as Walter Reed Army Medical Center or the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, on a space-available basis. However, Raezer said, as the military downsized, it also reduced its health facilities, "and there wasn't a lot of space available left" for retirees.

Tricare for Life allows retirees and their dependents to be treated by any hospital or doctor participating in Medicare - nearly all the health providers in the country. The provider sends the bill to Medicare. Medicare will then collect from Tricare for nearly all the deductibles and co-payments normally paid by the Medicare enrollee.(For example, Medicare members without supplemental insurance pay $792 for a hospital stay of up to 60 days, and 20 percent of all doctor fees; Tricare for Life will pick up these charges for military retirees.)

Military retirees will not have to pay any premiums for Tricare for Life, although they will have to pay $50 a month for the physician portion of Medicare. Raezer said the benefits equal or exceed those in the best "Medigap" supplemental policies. Those Medigap policies typically cost $200 a month, according to Michelle Holzer, director of the Senior Health Insurance Program for the state Department of Aging.

Tricare for Life is expected to cost $3.9 billion a year nationally to provide benefits for 1.5 million people, according to Sandra Law-Persing, a public information officer for the Department of Defense office that oversees the program.

Sierra Military will not process claims or make doctor appointments, as it does for under-65 Tricare members. Rather, it will provide customer service and help explain the program to providers.

Nelson said Sierra has conducted more than 100 briefings for retirees at military bases, senior centers, veterans organizations' halls and other locations. It has a phone bank (information, 888- 999-6355) to field questions from retirees.

Explaining the new program can be complicated. Nelson said the average call has taken about half an hour, compared with an eight-minute average for the under-65 program.

With other employers downsizing, Nelson said, Sierra has been able to hire experienced customer service staff. New hires get four weeks' training at Baltimore City Community College, including computer skills and medical terminology.

Nelson said Sierra Military, a subsidiary of Las Vegas-based health insurer Sierra Health Services Inc., expects to begin negotiations with the Department of Defense soon on an extension for up to four years of its five-year Tricare contract.

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