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Jenkins visits local firm

Friday, September 28, 2012

U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Kansas, (center right) talks about Cobalt Medplans' rapid growth with company CEO Tony Pino (left front), Fort Scott Service Center Director Pam Guilfoyle (center left) and Client Relations Manager Doreen Bennett (back left). At right on the far end of the table is Micheal Bryant, director of operations. Allen Askew, military aide to Jenkins, is in front on the right.
(Ruth Campbell/Tribune)
In a little more than a year, local medical claims processing firm Cobalt Medplans has grown three-fold and plans to double in size again within the next six months to a year.

Micheal Bryant, director of operations for Cobalt Medplans, a subsidiary of Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Kansas City, said plans are to add 100 full-time equivalent employees at the firm's locations in Fort Scott, Kansas City and a new spot, Rockford, Ill.

Having been impressed with the company's growth and its New Business of the Year Award from the Fort Scott Area Chamber of Commerce, which it received earlier this year, U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins wanted to visit the firm and did so on Thursday morning.

Jenkins, R-Topeka, said she wanted to find out what brought Cobalt Medplans to Fort Scott and how more businesses like it could be attracted to rural areas, which are losing population.

Chief Executive Officer Tony Pino said this is his second go-around. Back in 2003 when he moved to Kansas, the firm was called Medplans and was CEO of it. Medplans was sold in 2006.

The CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield in Kansas City asked Pino if he'd be interested in replicating Medplans, so Pino said he contacted Bryant, whom he'd worked with before, and asked if he "wanted to put the band back together."

Cigna previously occupied the Cobalt Medplans building at 2801 S. Horton St. and was going through layoffs, so the timing was good.

"Our next target is Omaha, Neb.," Pino said, because a large number of insurance companies there are selling or consolidating.

Sitting at a Cobalt Medplans conference table in the firm's 20,000-square-foot office, Bryant told Jenkins their space would allow the company to employ 185 people.

What Cobalt Medplans is looking for in employees is a year of claims processing experience. However, the business has an internal training program and stringent testing that includes everything from reading comprehension and key speed to a background check. It will soon include a math test and basic Windows navigation.

The eight-week, online course takes two to three hours a week to complete. Bryant noted Cobalt Medplans has attracted many former Cigna employees, but still needs more staff. He has begun working with the city on a recruiting package that would include taking himself, the city manager, school superintendent, a local financial official and a Cobalt Medplans staffer who fits the demographic the company is hoping to attract, on the road. The Cobalt Medplans staff member would be able to tell potential employees about the benefits of living in Fort Scott and what it can offer.

Pino praised the city and Bourbon County Economic Development for helping make Cobalt Medplans a reality in Fort Scott so quickly.

"Fort Scott is on the move. They've got great elected representatives and support from the chamber of commerce. Some of it has to do with good transportation and proximity to larger urban areas, but mostly I think it's good leadership," Jenkins said.

In an interview before her visit to Cobalt Medplans, Jenkins, who is running for a third term in Congress, said her visit to the company tied in with health care, jobs and the economy -- "a lot of the issues that are front and center today.

"At this point, I think everyone is still concerned about jobs, the economy and the debt and deficit situation," Jenkins said. "I think it will be a deciding factor in the election this fall. Depending on how that election turns out will determine how we move forward as a nation."

Jenkins, a former two-term state treasurer, said she continues to campaign hard. "We never take anything for granted and we talk to Kansans every day. We've done that for four years. ... We're going to work hard and let the voters decide."

The question people will ask themselves in the voting booth, she said, is whether they are better off now than they were four years ago. "I haven't met many, if any, who can answer that in the affirmative," Jenkins said, adding she's certain Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney will win Kansas.

In her particular race, where she will face Democrat Tobias Schlingensiepen in the Nov. 6 general election, Jenkins said. "We've done a stellar job with constituent services, which is half the job." She added that she's voted in the best interest of those she represents.

She also planned to visit Foster Dairy in Bourbon County and Treece, a community near the Oklahoma border declared uninhabitable and bought out by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency due to problems with pollution from mining.

Neighboring Picher, Okla., was bought out earlier. Picher and Treece were formed when mining was a going concern in that area, web references said.

At Foster Dairy, Jenkins hoped to discuss the need for a farm bill. "We've been screaming at our leadership to bring a farm bill," Jenkins said. She noted the farm bill is actually 80 percent nutrition programs and 20 percent farm-related. "They're aren't enough rural lawmakers in Washington who think the farm bill is a priority," Jenkins said.

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