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3 Seasoned Payer HR Executives Share Their Pandemic Workforce Insights

Analysis  |  By Laura Beerman  
   June 27, 2022

A peek into the conversation between Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, Clover Health, and CVS Health during the Healthcare Workforce of the Future roundtable.

What is it like to lead human resources decisions for a disrupted workforce when you're disrupted too? Ask Fara Palumbo, Tanya Taupier, and Jessie Wusthoff, people management executives from three very different organizations who discussed their pandemic pivots and discovered how much they had in common.

These leaders formed a first-ever payer panel at the annual Healthcare Workforce of the Future virtual roundtable—Palumbo as SVP and Chief People Officer of Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina (BCBS-NC); Taupier as SVP of Human Resources for CVS Health; and Wusthoff as director of Organizational Health, Office of the President, for Clover Health.

Each discussed how internal COVID-19 response teams sought their leadership and at a time when other high-level executives were new to their organizations.

"Leading the people team, we took center stage very often, and I think that was very different for folks in our role," says Palumbo. "I think much of our workforce was relying on me personally … It was really an interesting phenomenon."

Taupier adds: "I was on the top of the agenda every single day. Anything related to human capital, talent, safety, security—you're it. So just a tremendous accountability for HR, in a way I've not seen before in my career."

Wusthoff adds: "I'd already been hearing my name a thousand times a day for different reasons … A lot of us learned a lot about ourselves, I definitely learned about myself. [Clover] needed to provide our people with the resources to support their well-being [and] … to be able to perform in the delivery of their job the way they wanted to."

CVS' response team expanded and elevated HR and other roles, while adding new voices to executive decision-making.

"The epidemiologists were forecasting the models [for pandemic impact] and it was frightening because it was showing years, not months," says Taupier. "So, I asked the CEO if we could bring the epidemiologists and the models to an executive leadership team meeting to discuss the implications. That shifted things in terms of our daily COVID response."

How change changes

As viral weeks have become viral years, Wusthoff noted the importance of organizational scaffolding when crisis accelerates.

"To me, it's less about navigating uncertainty and more about the scaffolding you create around it—so people can stand on that scaffolding and feel a little more solid."

Noting of Clover that "a lot of things didn't change—our objectives were the same, our goals were the same," Wusthoff also states: "People had to stop saying at some point, 'but that's how we've always done it.' And it's so hard in well-established roles . . . to just keep doing that."

"I've loved seeing that unlock," she adds.

Taupier summarized the pandemic response phases, from the "continual focus on safety and well-being" to supply chain and productivity to the sustained need for mental health support: "We just did not have any type of playbook for this."

No one did, including how you move a workforce from office to remote nearly overnight.

From workforce transition to an entirely new HR approach

Palumbo, Taupier, and Wusthoff detailed how the pandemic revolutionized their workforces, including recruitment, retention, and location.

"One of the key strategies for us," says Palumbo, "is offering everyone in our workforce the choice of where and how they work: fully remote, mobile, fully on site. The key is, and we are very serious about this, it is their choice. We aren't mandating any number of days in the office."

"That," she adds, "is a very big deal when you're competing with large companies locally and now even nationally."

Her plan's talent pool was largely North Carolina based, while Clover's was already distributed, with Wusthoff adding: "We had less of a learning curve. We already had a Hong Kong office. We already had a D&I team. We already had employee engagement."

The workforce at Aetna, a CVS Health company, was also largely work from home with high levels of success—except in career development.

Developing leadership remotely

"What I always have said, and I continue to say, is that working virtually or remotely, in a pandemic, is very different than working remotely [under normal conditions]," stresses Palumbo.

Each panelist discussed the pandemic's impact on training, upskilling, and leadership succession, with Taupier highlighting: "How do we take some of our really high-performing clinicians and train them to be good leaders and good P&L [profit and loss] owners of the future?"

"It's about attracting a certain kind of person," Palumbo adds—highlighting the uniquely diverse set of roles health plans must hire for (e.g., nurses, customer service, data scientists) and returning to a key point from the event's keynote speaker, Marcus Whitney: in addition to supporting people, how does the work change?

Digitization and automation are critical—as is mission.

The role of technology and the changing face of HR

"We've needed to digitize everything," says Palumbo, emphasizing her plan's digital learning strategies: "When we send people home and say you can work remotely, you've got to be able to also train remotely."

Taupier noted the need to automate across all functional areas, including HR: "We recruited using AI, digital platforms," adding: "As we think about digital automation, how do we apply that to HR? Because if you didn't have a seat at the table before, you do now. You have a tremendous accountability for thinking about human capital strategy multiyear and enabling the business."

Wusthoff adds: "Mission is a key takeaway for me … [During the pandemic,] the mission did not change; the clarity of how important the mission is only furthered. I think that's really key whether its payers adjusting to technology, recruiting—I come back to the mission."

Scale, no matter the size

Across these companies, employee size ranges from the hundreds (Clover Health) to the thousands (BCBS-NC) to the hundreds of thousands (CVS Health).

Palumbo says that while organizations must consider the policy changes would impact the most people, she notes: "What really struck me in our small group panel is that, regardless of the size of your company … the challenges are fairly similar. They scale differently, but they're really, really similar, at least in our experience."

She adds: "No matter how big or small you are, you're still having to deal with those things that the workforce expects and that need to be aligned to your culture … I've been amazed listening to Jessie and Tanya. The reality is, we're very similar with some uniqueness."

Taupier agreed: "Regardless of the scale, it's really the same types of opportunities and challenges. Whether you're in a market or the U.S. or you're global, I feel like you still have those same dynamics."

More than a pandemic

"It's very important to point out that the last two years have not just been about the pandemic … Health inequity is a great example of an intersection of what so much of the last two years has been about," says Wusthoff, with a personal investment.

"As someone with a disability, I'm very in tune to what has been an act of conversation around flexibility as an accommodation … I'm proud to work at a company that always pursues saying yes."

Yes is something she, Palumbo, and Taupier have been saying their entire careers, solving problems and supporting people, during the most difficult times.

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“I was on the top of the agenda every single day. Anything related to human capital, talent, safety, security—you're it. So just a tremendous accountability for HR, in a way I've not seen before in my career.”

Laura Beerman is a contributing writer for HealthLeaders.


How pandemic response teams functioned, scaled solutions and displayed leadership with surprising similarities.

The uniqueness of the payer workforce; how it affects recruitment and retention; and the impact of technology, including on the HR field.

The importance of sustaining mission and career development support in the face of extreme change.

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