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When Disasters Strike

It was just a coincidence that Sergio Velasco was in Texas when Hurricane Harvey ripped through Houston. He had planned this business trip long before the weather forecasts warned of impending devastation.

Some people might consider that bad timing. But actually, it was quite fortunate.

Velasco, a Service Operations director who has spent 28 years working for Aetna, was in the right place at the right time. From Dallas, he and a team of Aetna colleagues traveled hundreds of miles to visit shelters outside Houston for more than a week, helping those who had been evacuated and displaced by the storm.

“My manager told me we needed to see if we could help in any way,” Velasco said. “Whatever they needed, we could help.”

Hurricane Harvey dumped more than 40 inches of water on Texas and Louisiana. At one Red Cross Shelter, Velasco met a woman who said her elderly mother was still stuck in Houston. The storm had flooded her home and washed away all her prescription medicine.

“So, I said: Let me see how I can help,” Velasco said. “I called the member and she was in a very bad situation traveling with family members and staying in a hotel outside Houston sharing one room.”

Velasco arranged to have the prescriptions delivered to her hotel room. He received a text message from the woman soon after: “Thank You to you and Aetna.”

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Maria Mendez says Aetna’s response to disasters “solidified” her conviction that she was working for the right company

At Aetna, we’re committed to building a healthier world, one community at a time. Sometimes, that means rebuilding a community, helping members—and employees—who may be going through the toughest moment of their lives.

The past year was a tough moment for a lot of people. It was one of the most active hurricane seasons in recorded history, with three giant storms, billions of dollars in damage, and tens of thousands of people left homeless.

Dealing with that kind of destruction requires planning. Our business resiliency team keeps an eye on developing hurricanes, wildfires and other disasters, allowing us to move quickly when needed.And we were needed.

Aetna modified our pharmacy policies, so our members could refill prescriptions early. We helped members who had been evacuated from their homes find care and behavioral health support. We extended deadlines for filing claims and appeals.

Our Resources For Living® program provided assistance finding shelters and government resources. We opened up these services to everyone affected by the hurricanes, whether they were members or not. The same went for Teladoc®, our telehealth provider: We made free “virtual” medical services available to everyone dealing with the hurricanes.

Like Velasco, Maria Mendez—a 12-year Aetna veteran currently working as an account executive—didn’t hesitate to lend a hand after Hurricane Harvey. Born and raised in Dallas, she felt a personal obligation as well as a moral one. With a book of clients in the Houston area, Mendez used her expertise and her bilingual skills to help evacuees. She remembers seeing the “fear of the unknown” in their faces. Despite their hardships, many were happy just to have survived the storm.

“The city was paralyzed,” Mendez said. “There was this human factor that we were all there and bringing Aetna to life for those impacted. We’re not just a company you pay money into. We are human beings.”

Across the country, hundreds of Aetna employees donated thousands of hours of their time to help residents recover from hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. They shipped tarps and disposable washcloths to Florida. They raised money to provide eyeglasses to people in Houston. They set up YouGiveGoods® drives and blood drives.

For Mendez, the work “solidified” her conviction that she was working for the right company. “Aetna cares,” she said.

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Heather Liverano was part of the Aetna team in Jacksonville that handed out supplies to hurricane victims

Not long after he returned home from Dallas, Velasco found himself on the other side of another hurricane—as someone needing help, rather than offering it. His home in Jacksonville was right in the path of Hurricane Irma. He and his family didn’t have time to leave before the storm.

“It was a very scary experience when you hear that wind,” Velasco said, “and you hear the news on your AM radio every 15 to 20 minutes for a potential tornado.”

When disasters strike, Aetna has a responsibility not only to our members, but our employees, as well. Days before Irma even made landfall, Human Resources supported the readiness of several thousand managers and employees, distributing emergency contact numbers and other vital information. Once the storm struck, a group of corporate departments made sure all employees and their families were safe. One HR team called more than 300 employees who had not been accounted for—and continued to call them until they could account for every single one of them.

For both Harvey and Irma, Human Resources launched an employee hotline staffed seven days a week. The hotline handled more than a thousand calls, many of them from people needing shelter and hotel rooms.

In Jacksonville, Aetna opened its offices in mid-September, allowing members to walk in and ask questions about insurance and prescriptions. More importantly, the employees there provided water, food and other supplies, from gloves and face masks to deodorant.

“Any time you are able to help someone, and you can see the impact you’re having, it makes it all worth it,” said Heather Liverano, an Aetna employee for more than eight years who works as a social media resolution manager in the Jacksonville office. “It can only make you a better person for helping someone else.”

Velasco and his family emerged from the storm unharmed. Their home suffered only some minor roof damage and a collapsed fence. Others were not as lucky.

“One person even took extra supplies for their neighborhood because it had been so badly damaged,” Liverano said. “It made you feel good to be able to hand someone $75 worth of supplies that they truly needed. We did a lot of good.”

As Harvey was breaking rain records, it caused enough damage to shut down the Ambassadors for Christ (AFC) Youth Ministries in Houston.

The group—which promotes a mind-body approach to overall well-being—already receives grant support from the Aetna Foundation. But seeing the damage done by Harvey, the Foundation donated an additional $20,000 to help get the center running again.

The center celebrated its grand re-opening on December 19, 2017.

The Aetna Foundation made other key donations to support relief efforts, including:

  • A $100,000 contribution to the American Red Cross, a $100,000 contribution to the Community Foundation of Greater Houston, a $50,000 contribution to Team Rubicon and a $25,000 contribution to Texas Meals on Wheels for Hurricane Harvey.
  • A $100,000 contribution to the American Red Cross, a $50,000 contribution to the Volunteer Florida Disaster Relief Fund,
    a $20,000 contribution to the Lutheran Social Services of Northeast Florida and a $10,000 contribution for the Area Agency on Aging for Southeast Florida for Hurricane Irma.
  • A $100,000 to the Empire State Relief and Recovery Effort for Puerto Rico—launched by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo—and a $25,000 contribution to the Humane Society of the United States for Hurricane Maria.

Aetna employees gave money, too. Between late August and the end of 2017, Aetna employees, retirees and directors donated more $230,000 toward hurricane relief efforts. The Aetna Foundation matched those contributions dollar for dollar.

For their colleagues who needed time off to recover from the wreckage, Aetna employees donated more than 2,600 hours of PTO.

We just wanted to help,” said Samuel Berrios, who works from Aetna’s office in Arlington, Texas. “We’re glad we played a part in this.
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Samuel Berrios leads Aetna’s Hispanic Employee Resource Group, which raised money for Puerto Rico relief efforts.

Berrios was born and raised on the island of Puerto Rico. Some of his family still lives there. When Hurricane Maria pulverized the island, those family members were left without power for months.

“We knew we had to do something,” Berrios said.

The 35-year Aetna employee, a member of the Medicare Customer Service team, is also national chairman for the company’s Hispanic Employee Resource Group, which is named AHORA and boasts nearly 900 members. Many of those members flooded Berrios’ inbox telling him they needed to act.

Berrios reached out to the Aetna Foundation and together they came up with the idea of holding a monthlong “Challenge Match” fundraiser. Berrios and his colleagues raised $15,000, and the Foundation matched it—and then some—by adding $25,000. The total $40,000 went to the Hispanic Federation.

“It was something pretty humbling and heartwarming,” Berrios said. “It was great to see the entire organization support our initiative and get behind us. We just wanted to help, and we’re glad we played a part in this.”

Aetna Foundation Senior Program Officer Amy Clark—also a member of AHORA—agreed.

This effort showed the power of the connections employees have to those impacted by the hurricane in Puerto Rico,” Clark said. “This example will serve as a strong model for future opportunities for others to respond to disasters in non-traditional ways.

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Irene Melo accompanied her son, Dustin Rodriguez, on a weeklong volunteer trip to deliver supplies to Puerto Rico

The tarps. Above all, Irene Melo remembers the tarps.

“When you’re looking down, you see all of the blue tarps for the makeshift roofs,” Melo said. “It puts everything into perspective right away.”

Melo was speaking less than a month after she returned from Puerto Rico on a weeklong volunteer trip with her son, Dustin Rodriguez. The mother-and-son pair were among nearly a dozen volunteers who helped gather supplies in Connecticut and deliver them to the San Juan area of Puerto Rico.

Rodriguez, who has family on the island, worked on the project as part of his senior capstone project for his high school. He and other volunteers partnered with a local baseball league and a local Lions Club and began collecting water. Then they expanded their efforts and collected food. Then clothing.

Melo, a 24-year veteran at Aetna working in IT, said her son would come home from a full day at school and put together care packages. To ship the 45-foot-long containers to the island cost more than $5,000 per container. They had to create partnerships with local organizations and small businesses to raise the money.

But once they shipped the containers, their work had only just begun.

Melo said she was humbled and impressed by her son’s dedication both before and after they visited Puerto Rico. While on the island, the group handed out care packages and gave supplies to a school in San Juan. Rodriguez saw members of his family that he had never met before, and gave them food and water.

“I think seeing everything we saw,” Melo said, “he knows he has a lot to be grateful for.”

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