When the unemployment rate in Missoula County fell to just 3.4 percent last April, the management team of a fast-growing company in town realized that they were going to have to come up with an innovative recruitment strategy to fill jobs.

The low jobless numbers meant that a small pool of potential job-seekers could be extremely choosy, so old ways of luring workers wouldn’t fill empty seats.

Allegiance Benefit Plan Management in Missoula is a company that has around 300 employees in four different office buildings near the Missoula County Fairgrounds. The firm is a third-party administrator for self-funded health insurance benefits, including the health insurance plans for both the city of Missoula and the state of Montana as well as other companies and government agencies.

Overall, it administers plans for more than 100,000 workers plus their spouses and children. They are constantly hiring in their customer service and claims examiner departments, but those jobs require a fairly advanced level of skill and knowledge. Company CEO Dirk Visser and his team decided to look at an apprenticeship program, creating their own labor force with exactly the skills they are looking for and providing local students with a direct pipeline to a job.

Now, through a partnership with the Missoula College, the Missoula Job Service and the Montana Department of Labor and Industry's Health Care Apprenticeship program, a new college course and an apprenticeship – with paid study hours – is available for anyone looking for a new career with an almost guaranteed good-paying job.

Essentially, a student can take a 21-credit course at Missoula College to become a medical claims service specialist that includes paid on-the-job training in the Allegiance call center, which includes the actual job duties for the employer. When they're finished, graduates qualify for a higher wage.

Apprentices are eligible for benefits like regular employees, including medical, dental, vision, short-term disability, long-term disability, employer-funded life insurance, 401(k) retirement plans with an employer match, and profit sharing. Apprentices also can get paid for study time related to their coursework.

“It’s a one-year program that will yield better-trained staff and hopefully increase labor availability for the company,” explained Wolf Ametsbichler, the manager of the Missoula Job Service. “In general, apprenticeships are being increasingly used in the market place due to current and ever increasing skilled labor shortages.”

The Missoula College and the Department of Labor and Industry were already working together on an initiative called HealthCARE Montana, which builds training programs to meet the current and future needs of health care organizations, one of the strongest drivers of both the Missoula and statewide economy. Officials at Missoula College reworked existing curriculum into a course that would culminate into a nationally recognized medical claims service specialist certificate.

Students learn anatomy, medical terminology, medical billing fundamentals, medical software, health data content and customer service management. Students also can opt in to the voluntary Allegiance component, which is an “earn and learn” approach. Allegiance has agreed to hire the students and allow them two paid hours of study time on site per day. All the classes except anatomy can be taken online.

“We’re very excited about it,” said Margaret McManus, vice president and chief administrative officer of Allegiance. “We’re trying to get the word out. These are entry-level positions. It’s a good way to get a foot in the door and a way to learn. And if you advance here, we put you up into a higher level of pay. We are hoping it will attract people who want to apply to Allegiance.”

McManus said that she’s been at the company for 30 years and there have only been two years where they didn’t grow significantly and hire people.

“And those years were based on us taking a step back and making adjustments so we could handle growth,” she said.

Workers at the company take calls and help customers with questions. Customers often need to know things such as whether a certain treatment is covered or whether a claim has been received.

Employees "need to have pretty extensive training for both the medical claims examiner position or the medical customer service position,” McManus explained. “Those are the two different tracks. You need to understand plan documents, how to interpret them, what types of questions need to be answered or whether the call needs to be sent up to a senior examiner.”

McManus declined to say exactly how much the entry-level jobs pay, only saying that they are very competitive in the Missoula market.

Ametsbichler said the jobs pay well above minimum wage.

Combined, the course requires 21 credits. If a student were able to complete the whole thing in a semester – which would be difficult while working full-time – tuition and fees would cost about $1,805. In a more realistic timeline, if a student took a full year for the classroom component, tuition and fees would cost about $3,588. Some students may qualify for education funding through the Missoula Job Service.

For more information, call Wolf Ametsbichler at the Missoula Job Service at 406-728-7060; Michelle Boller, Missoula College Medical Information Technology Program director at 406-243-7877; or Margaret McManus at 406-721-2222, extension 3128.

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