Oct. 19--After more than a decade of discussions and planning, for the first time this week all Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana's Helena employees are working under one roof with the opening of the company's new headquarters.
The newly completed 93,000-square foot building sits on 21 acres on Helena's east end. Two wings provide up to three floors of space for 385 employees, featuring a gym, cafeteria, an outside walking path and open floor plans.
"I think everybody is taking the opportunity to experience the new building and enjoy all it offers," said Blue Cross spokesman John Doran.
Doran touted the use of local contractors as the building was designed by SMA Architects and built by Dick Anderson Construction. The design emphasizes employee health, natural light and collaboration, he said.
Plenty of windows flood workspaces with available light while walls showcase the history of Blue Cross, one of its major sponsorships in the Governor's Cup and employees volunteering in the community.
Blue Cross bought the property in 2010 and then merged with Health Care Service Corp. of Chicago in 2013. Seeing the need for a new headquarters, the company chose to remain in Helena.
"It's no surprise we've been looking for a long-term headquarters solution," Doran said. "This building permanently cements our long-term presence in Helena."
The nearby subdivision Mountain View Meadows and the new Blue Cross building are likely to spur continued development as the area between Helena and East Helena offers one of the few undeveloped areas for Helena to expand, he said.
The move marks a departure from downtown, where buildings on Park Avenue and Fuller Street are now looking for new tenants. Blue Cross once owned both buildings and 13 parking lots, but, following the merger, saw those assets go under the control of the Montana Healthcare Foundation.
Blue Cross remains committed to downtown, Doran said, but the benefits of the new building make business and customer service sense. As one of the largest local private employers, the company has been housed in up to four buildings at one time, and even 13 parking lots did not provide enough spaces for all employees.
"It's important for us to have all of our employees under one roof so we can provide better efficiencies and better serve our members," Doran said. "From a long-term cost perspective it's less expensive to own one building than to lease two."
Helena Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Cathy Burwell agreed that consolidating to one building made sense and says it reflects a commitment to the community.
"They could be anywhere, so it really is a choice to stay in Helena," she said. "It's a stellar location and a state-of-the-art building."
While there will be a transition, Burwell believes the downtown buildings will soon find tenants bringing in new opportunities.
"I think that downtown Helena will rebound from this quickly," she said. "The Blue Cross folks have already learned how wonderful it is to shop downtown, and they'll remain faithful. Then whoever moves into that office space will make this a win-win."
Helena Business Improvement District Executive Director Tracy Reich says it is unfortunate that Blue Cross has left downtown, and the BID would like to see the buildings filled.
"You can look at it both ways -- it's too bad that they left but it's an opportunity to turn those spaces into something else," she said. "The vitality of downtown Helena is important to us -- obviously empty office space isn't something we particularly like, so we're working with people to fill it."
The new Blue Cross building will not only invigorate current employees but help recruit new employees in the future, Doran said. With retirement of baby boomers, the need is expected to be there; and designs allow for expansion if more space is needed.
When asked about the cost of insurance and frustration over rising rates, Doran reiterated that a single building provides long-term savings. He also pointed out that administration expenses are expected to fall this year and next.
"Sometimes folks like to make the connection that you have this fancy new building and that's why rates continue to go up, and it has nothing to do with that," he said. "The reason we're projecting our rates to be where they are is because the cost of medical service continues to rise and the use of those medical services continues to rise."
Blue Cross is pushing for a shift from fee for service where compensation is based on volume to a health care system focused on outcomes, Doran said.
"The best way to drive down health care costs long-term is to have a healthier population," he said. "This building starts to do that with our own employees."
Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 or [email protected]
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