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Blue Cross Blue Shield of Utah has teamed up with four other Blue Cross organizations in the Northwest to beef up its economic strength, save money and offer more insurance programs than it can now.

"We're emphasizing that it's an affiliation, not an acquisition, because we do maintain a local board and all our operations will be run locally," said Kevin Bischoff, vice president of corporate communications. "The Benchmark Group also has a board of directors and we will have five members on their board, which will bring it to 27 members."Bischoff said he expects no layoffs in Blue Cross Blue Shield of Utah's 800 employee workforce.

The merger must be approved by the Utah Insurance Commissioner after a public hearing is held. Blue Cross Blue Shield officials say they hope the necessary government approvals will occur by the end of this year.

The affiliation will link the local organization with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Oregon, King County Medical Blue Shield in Seattle, Medical Service Bureau/Blue Shield of Idaho in Lewiston, and Pierce County Medical Service Bureau in Tacoma.

"This means a more secure future for us financially in the state of Utah. It enables us to introduce a lot of new products to our customers that we didn't have access to before because of the expense," Bischoff said.

For example, the Benchmark Group offers life insurance, Medicare HMO programs, regional PPOs (preferred provider organizations, which are like HMOs but allow people to go outside the network and still get coverage), and workers compensation insurance coverage.

Bischoff said the move also will help the Utah organization in other ways.

"Medicare is starting to regionalize their process and we handle it for Utah. As it is regionalized, we may be left out as the single carrier. Now that we're teamed with the Benchmark Group we feel this will help us stay as a Medicare administrator," he said.

Federal government employees also have a choice of insurance carriers and Blue Cross Blue Shield is one option. "That is our biggest account in Utah and we feel this affiliation will help us stay heavily involved in this market as well."

Additionally, Bischoff said the change may help Blue Cross Blue Shield land big accounts in private industries that have operations in several Western states.

He also expects the five organizations can save money through group purchasing of supplies, technology and other items.

"As insurers are moving more into the managed care idea, it is quite technology heavy. We rely a lot on computer programs to profile physicians, medical review procedures, contracting with providers. Instead of five plans doing that on their own, we can use systems already developed by the Benchmark Group. That will provide us with a lot of savings."

The Benchmark Group has been in existence for a year.