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Sterling could be closing its Bellingham headquarters if sale to Cigna is approved

One of Bellingham’s major employers may be leaving the area after it is sold to another large health insurance firm.

Cigna has agreed to purchase Sterling Life Insurance Company from WellCare Health Plans, Inc. In an email to agents that was picked up by several industry websites, Cigna announced it was planning to move Sterling’s Medicare supplement policy work to its Austin, Texas, facility.

The Sterling office in Bellingham primarily offers Medicare supplement polices to individuals, serving more than 44,000 Medicare supplement customers in 39 states, according to the announcement.

The email did not mention how many employees are at the Bellingham office, which is in the Barkley District. In a January 13, 2011, article in The Bellingham Herald, the workforce at the Bellingham office was at 500 employees.

Jim Angstadt, public relations manager at Cigna, confirmed in an email that Cigna has entered into an agreement with WellCare to acquire Sterling Life and that it would take about three months to complete, pending certain regulatory approval and other closing conditions. He added that they are acquiring only the Medicare supplement part of the business, while Sterling’s Prescription Drug Plan business will remain with WellCare.

Angstadt would not comment about the future of the Bellingham office because the acquisition has not been completed. He did say in the email that Sterling will conduct business as usual until the deal is completed. After that, he said “we anticipate integration activities will continue into 2016.”

Originally started as Olympic Health Management in 1989, the Bellingham insurance provider grew into a significant local employer. In 1998 it was sold to Chicago-based Aon, then sold to Munich Re in 2008 for $352 million.

By August 2009 the company, which transitioned over to Sterling Life Insurance, had 715 employees in Bellingham. As changes to the health care industry took place, the Bellingham office began shedding jobs, dropping to 500 employees by January 2011. In January 2014 Munich Re sold Sterling to WellCare Health Plans.

According to the email sent to agents, all Sterling policyholders will be maintained. In the interim while waiting for the sale to be completed, Cigna announced that it would work with Sterling on a transition plan.

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