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160,000 Belly Buttons: The obstacles to quality healthcare for lineworkers

By Colleen Beaty | Dec 15, 2022
healthcare

It’s no secret that quality healthcare can be critical for electrical workers and everyone else. No one plans to get sick or hurt, and even with safety programs and training to prevent injuries, everyone will need preventative care or medical treatment at some point.

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It’s no secret that quality healthcare can be critical for electrical workers and everyone else. No one plans to get sick or hurt, and even with safety programs and training to prevent injuries, everyone will need preventative care or medical treatment at some point. However, the healthcare industry faces challenges that affect insurance companies, employers, employees and their families.

One organization working to ameliorate some of these obstacles to high-quality, accessible benefits is the Line Construction Benefit Fund (LINECO). Established in 1963 and headquartered in Lombard, Ill., in the suburbs of Chicago, LINECO is a multi-­employer trust fund set up to provide health and welfare benefits for outside electrical lineworkers and their families, with coverage for medical, dental, vision, prescription, life insurance and more. The fund includes members from all 50 states, covering IBEW line contractors working under collective bargaining agreements between IBEW and NECA.

Kevin Chesniak, LINECO’s executive director, said that the fund covers just over 62,000 employees of NECA District 10, “and if you add in their children and their spouses, you’re talking about 160,000 ‘belly buttons,’ or ‘covered lives,’ that we provide these benefits to nationally.”

Healthcare cost inflation

According to Chesniak, easily one of the biggest challenges for LINECO and its members is the ongoing inflation of healthcare costs. 

“The actual cost of the care that our members incur, unbeknownst to them, is just inflated more and more each year, based on market demographics,” he said. “We see different areas of the country where the same type of service is going to cost more just because of the location and fragmented healthcare delivery system.”

Unfortunately, healthcare cost inflation has only compounded due to the COVID-19 pandemic, supply chain issues, rising fuel prices and other economic stressors. 

“It’s no secret that hospitals and doctors make more profit when they do elective procedures. Well, during the pandemic, pretty much most states were canceling elective procedures. So now that we’re sort of opening back up, we are seeing a little bit more inflation,” Chesniak said. “Things are just costing a lot more than they did two years ago.”

The issue of price inflation isn’t unique to LINECO. A February 2022 study from the Peterson Center on Healthcare and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that healthcare costs rose dramatically over the last 50 years, from $74.1 billion in 1970, to $1.4 trillion in 2000, to a whopping $4.1 trillion in 2020. This spending on healthcare accounted for nearly 20% of the United States’ gross domestic product in 2020, up from just 7% in 1970. The study also found that spending per enrollee by private insurance companies rose 46.8% between 2008 and 2020.

LINECO works hard to help keep costs down for its members, one example of this being that it encourages them to use in-network providers whenever possible. Offering a telehealth option through Teladoc Health Inc. has also afforded an additional means of keeping costs down for fund members. 

“A lot of our members travel for work, whether it be storm work or...just following the line work where it is,” Chesniak said. “And we found also that a lot of our members may have been going to the emergency room when they really didn’t need to for more basic health concerns. The intent of telemedicine was to give them an alternative option to the ER where they could talk to a doctor 24/7 on the phone and try and get some advice and potentially solve for their health concern.”

Member engagement

The nature of line work also makes member engagement more challenging for LINECO, as it can be difficult to reach members using more traditional forms of communicating (phone and mail). Chesniak said that the fund is working to become more digitally positioned to address this, but overall they want to meet members where they are.

“We’re trying as an organization to get to that next level where if a member wants to call us on our 1-800 number, if they want to interact with us on our mobile application, if they want to mail us something via the U.S. Postal Service or upload documents to us—we’re trying to get to the point where our membership can interact with us whenever and however they would like,” Chesniak said.

Mental health

Mental health is another growing issue that many in the healthcare industry—including LINECO and its Board of Trustees—are very cognizant of. As a safety issue, mental health is a growing concern within the construction industry (see “A Spotlight on Mental Health” in the November 2021 issue of SAFETY LEADER), and it’s only increasing in prominence as people deal with the ongoing stresses of the last few years. According to a March 2022 report from the Senate Committee on Finance, nearly 40% of adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression from April 2020 through February 2021—nearly four times the number reported prior to the pandemic. 

“Whichever way you look at it, what happened the last two years stressed everyone’s life,” Chesniak said. These concerns are “not going to go away overnight. I think we’re going to have a couple of years upcoming where we’re readjusting and helping our members who really struggled through the last two years get back to solid footing.”

While demand for mental health services is rising, the number of available providers is still well short of what’s needed. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s 2021 “Behavioral Health Workforce Report” describes how serious the shortage is: the United States needs more than 4 million more mental health practitioners to meet current needs. The Senate Finance Committee’s report further underscores the problem, noting that nearly one-third of Americans live in an area with a shortage of practitioners, and more than 60% of counties do not have a single practicing psychiatrist. 

Considering this, LINECO and its board of trustees recently adjusted some benefits to help members receive the care they need. According to Chesniak, the fund recently partnered with Teladoc to expand its telehealth services for members to also include mental health visits, which are free for the entire family. LINECO’s trustees want to ensure mental health benefits are available wherever possible to members, whether it’s an in-person or virtual visit with a clinician.

LINECO is also interested in providing tools that can be used while on the job to help a member in crisis. 

“We actually just piloted a program where we provided mental health safety cards to a number of NECA contractors and Local IBEW unions” to give foremen “another tool to put in their back pocket[s],” he said. 

The card has warning signs and the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in case crisis intervention is needed. “At the end of the day, suicide awareness is important, but it’s not something that everyone’s real comfortable talking about,” especially on a construction work site, Chesniak said. “So hopefully, if it helps one [person] who’s in crisis mode and the foreman can recognize it and get them help right away, then I think it was well worth it just for that one person.”

 


 

988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline

Since 2004, the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (formerly the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) has provided a 24/7 hotline for people in a mental health crisis at 800-273-TALK (8255).

As of July 2022, the hotline can now also be reached by simply dialing 9-8-8.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, help is available. Call or text 9-8-8 to speak to a trained counselor.


Header image by Getty Images / Feodora Chiosea

About The Author

Colleen Beaty

Senior Editor

Colleen Beaty is senior editor at ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR Magazine, where she has worked since 2020. She has been writing about topics such as outside line work, wildlife and habitat conservation for more than 18 years. In her role with ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR, she primarily works with the editorial team to fine-tune stories for the magazines and curate content for ECmag.com. She can also be found hosting ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR's webinars. She holds a BS in wildlife conservation from the University of Delaware.

Colleen is fueled by tea (especially chai), and can often be found cross-stitching or birding in her spare time (but not both at once).

Reach her on LinkedIn or at [email protected].

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