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Jose Rodriguez was extremely sick when he was placed on medical leave from his job as a fiberglass laminator at Viking Yacht Company in New Gretna, N.J. He was desperate to get back to work, but with a blood glucose level of 400, he couldn’t do the challenging work of molding fiberglass cloth and resin into high-performance sportfish yacht hulls.

And since Rodriguez wasn’t ready to self-administer twice-daily shots of insulin — and was finding it difficult to make the diet and exercise changes doctors recommended — it appeared that he might never return to work, or, worse, not survive.

Kemp Wetmore says a visit to the Health Services clinic saved his life. 

Kemp Wetmore says a visit to the Health Services clinic saved his life. 

That’s when Viking Yachts’ Health Services nurse practitioner Steven Marks, who started at the on-site walk-in clinic in 2003 as a staff nurse, got involved. “We were managing his leave, and he kept hounding us to come back to work, but he wasn’t well enough,” Marks says. “I reached out to his health provider, who stated that he wasn’t compliant. He wasn’t taking the medicine the way he was supposed to or regularly using insulin. So, we brought him into the clinic and talked to him.”

Today, Rodriguez is not only back at work, but he’s healthy, monitoring his blood sugar and self-administering the insulin needed to control his diabetes with help and counseling from registered nurse Billeny Rivera, one of three staff nurses at the clinic. He comes in once a day before lunch to self-administer an insulin shot and monitor his blood glucose levels.

The financial cost to Rodriguez for the highly personalized, rigorous care? Absolutely nothing.

Rodriguez’s case is just one among 8,000 that Viking Yacht Company’s Health Services clinic sees each year without any cost to employees or their families. Access to it, and the health insurance that Viking’s 1,600 employees have, are entirely funded by the boatbuilder.

Viking Yachts’ 1,600 employees and their families receive free health care

Viking Yachts’ 1,600 employees and their families receive free health care

That model for providing services is the brainchild and passion of executive vice president Drew Davala, who started talking about the idea with Viking founders Bob and Bill Healey and chief financial officer Jerry Straub Sr. more than 35 years ago when the company was one of his clients.

“My first job out of Temple University was working for the New Jersey Manufacturers insurance company,” he says. “Viking was one of my accounts. I handled all their workers’ comp liability claims, and loss engineering and safety issues — anything in the plant. So, I’ve been coming down here since 1982. I got to know Bill and Bob Healey well over those years, as well as the CFO, Jerry Straub Sr.”

About five years into handling the account, he recalls, Straub asked if he wanted to join the company and help create a formal personnel department. “We had clinics throughout the state treating employees of companies,” Davala says. “I told Bob, Bill and Jerry that they would have to pay into it, but that it would be much cheaper than sending employees to the hospital or to a doctor.”

Registered nurse Billeny Rivera starts a Covid test

Registered nurse Billeny Rivera starts a Covid test

Davala knew it would take 15 years or more to get where he thought Viking Yachts should be with the program. “All these years later, I can say it was the right choice,” he says. “My job is gratifying. I love working with people, and that’s what this job is all about.”

Davala says the self-insured model is neither new nor unique to Viking Yachts. “My grandfather and an uncle worked for Bethlehem Steel, and I had a great-grandfather who worked for Lenox china in Trenton, New Jersey,” he says. “They all had internal health departments, as did Roebling Steel,” whose New Jersey location also offered employees a hospital, medical clinics, a general store and reduced-cost housing.

According to Davala, the idea for Viking was to save the company money by treating work-related injuries in-house. But he also wanted to take care of regular healthcare needs for employees and their families — decades before doing so became trendy.

“A healthy employee is a productive employee, number one,” he says. “And number two, it’s good business. You keep your employees healthy. Our medical plan is direct self-insured. We save a lot of money doing that model, and it’s better for our employees.”

The clinic, which is less than 75 feet from the factory floor, is small and busy. Milo, a therapy dog in training, greets every visitor, some with a wag of the tail and others with a bark.

Nurse practitioner Steven Marks with bivalent Covid-19 vaccines

Nurse practitioner Steven Marks with bivalent Covid-19 vaccines

“Therapy dogs alert in different ways,” says Marks, who is certified to work with therapy animals. “Milo’s a barker. He’s doing that right now because that gentleman who just walked in has cancer. One time he jumped on a patient and started clawing at his belly. After an examination, we diagnosed him with an abdominal infection that required surgery. Bridgette, the clinic’s last therapy dog, would lie at a patient’s feet when she sensed something was amiss.”

The facility is also well-equipped. There are three examination rooms, a pharmacy, freezer storage for Covid-19 vaccines, intubation equipment, portable trauma kits and more.

“We have one room for more in-depth care, whether it’s cardiac or ocular eye emergencies,” Marks says. “The room has a surgical light and an electrocardiogram machine, and we have full emergency equipment on-site. So, we’ve got all the respiratory and advanced cardiac life-support drugs. We have cardiac monitors and defibrillators, suturing equipment and respiratory therapy equipment.”

A recent investment was the purchase of a Covid-19 PCR test machine, and its kits, for $45,000. “It’s the biggest diagnostic tool we’ve purchased recently,” Marks says. “And that’s huge for us because we were waiting a week or more to get lab results. Now, I need 39 minutes, and I can get Covid-19, flu and respiratory syncytial virus detected all in the same specimen. When we catch it early, it prevents them from spreading the virus in the factory. In eight months, it has easily paid for itself.”

According to Davala, the most common work-related injuries the clinic treats are falls and repetitive motion injuries.

“You’ve got elbow, shoulder and back injuries from people crawling in and out of small spaces, sanding, running electrical wire, all kinds of repetitive tasks,” he says. “We also see a number of fall arrests — falling from a height. Someone might fall off a factory bridge or boat because our boats are elevated on cradles. You could be 20 to 30 feet off the ground on a boat outside on land. So, we’ve spent significant resources on fall-arrest systems, harnesses, lanyards, etc. Those are the cases that you never want to have, and it keeps you up at night. But they still happen.”

(L-R) Jackie Wurdemann, medical assistant; Milo, therapy dog (in training); Drew Davala, Viking executive vice president and co-founder of Viking Health Services; Billeny Rivera, registered nurse; Steven Marks, Health Services manager and advanced practice nurse, Tammy Heinrich, registered nurse; and Joan Butler, certified medical assistant. 

(L-R) Jackie Wurdemann, medical assistant; Milo, therapy dog (in training); Drew Davala, Viking executive vice president and co-founder of Viking Health Services; Billeny Rivera, registered nurse; Steven Marks, Health Services manager and advanced practice nurse, Tammy Heinrich, registered nurse; and Joan Butler, certified medical assistant. 

Marks says the range of illnesses and injuries the clinic sees runs the gamut, from sprains and broken bones to seasonal allergies and minor abrasions.

“Right now, we’re helping a lot with ragweed allergies,” he says. “Dust allergies are on the rise, too. We can test for allergies here. Then there are twisted ankles and knees, vaccinations, colds, flu and gastrointestinal problems. It’s not much different than a public walk-in clinic except that it’s right off the factory floor and not 10 or 15 miles away. Having to get in a car and travel to a facility is a significant deterrent to folks who should be seen for problems earlier rather than later.”

The clinic’s location was a lifesaver for employee Kemp Wetmore, an exterior hardware fitter, who came in after experiencing chest pain for two days.

“I just felt like I had a pulled muscle, something like that,” Wetmore recalls. “I had it for a couple of days and then felt some pain in my arm, so I came down to the clinic. I really didn’t want to see anyone about it, but it’s here, so I figured, Why not? After they did some tests on me, Steve told me I needed to get to a hospital. The next day, I was having emergency bypass surgery. Let me tell you — I’d be dead if it wasn’t for the clinic being here. Today, I’m managing my health much better. It wouldn’t be possible without these people and the clinic.”

The cost to run the clinic is about $500,000 a year, according to Davala. Divide that by the approximately 8,000 cases the clinic sees every year, and the average cost per visit is around $63.

“The best part about our model, with the on-site clinic and being self-insured, is that not only are we providing our people with a better quality of care and making it convenient for them, but we’re also saving a significant amount of money,” he says. “By having the clinic on-site, we catch things early, teach people how to care for themselves and promote general wellness. That’s what helps keep people out of emergency rooms and having hospital stays, which gets very expensive for us very fast.”

There is also a wellness center on the factory grounds.

“We provide a fitness center at the marina that has a gym and a classroom, and we also have equipment for physical therapy,” Davala says. “Our physical therapist, Diego Rodriguez, does all our internal workers’ comp cases. Anything work-related — strains, sprains — we’ll send them to Diego for a prescribed number of treatments.”

Viking Yacht Company’s factory in New Gretna, N.J.

Viking Yacht Company’s factory in New Gretna, N.J.

Mental health is also important to Viking leadership. A counselor comes in every Thursday for employee assistance.

“If he feels as if an employee could use medication, there are certain drugs that our health clinic can help with,” Davala says. “If the employee needs additional care, we’ll send them to AtlantiCare Behavioral Health to see a psychiatrist if it’s that type of problem. We’ve dealt with plenty of situations in mental health here.”

While the company pays whatever costs are necessary to resolve an employee’s health situation — inside or outside the clinic — expensive treatments, such as an extended cancer case, can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes even the seven figures. Those are the types of medical costs Viking cannot easily absorb.

“We don’t pay those half-million-dollar, God forbid, cancer claims. So, we buy stop-loss insurance,” Davala says. “We can handle up to a $500,000 claim on our own — and we monitor those cases closely. I can predict that every year we’re going to have one to three of these big claims, but our employees are always protected.” 

This article was originally published in the November 2022 issue.

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