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Univera fills need for AEDs in the communty

Peter Kates went to work as a radio advertising specialist when he graduated from the Syracuse University Newhouse School of Communications in 1981, but left the business 13 years later after a corporate chain bought WBEN-AM and 102.5-FM.

Kates began to work at HealthCarePlan in 1995. Three years later, the company was renamed Univera Healthcare, and the Town of Tonawanda native became vice president of communications.

He wears several hats for one of the top three health insurers in the region, but one of the roles that gives him the greatest satisfaction is helping the company place Automated External Defibrillators with rural sheriff’s offices and nonprofit groups in Western New York that often go without the life-saving, heart-starting devices because of budget constraints.

“When we place these units, my parting words are, ‘I hope you never have to use it. I want it to gather dust,’ but if they do have to use it, that’s what it’s all about,” said Kates, 54.

Describe your job in a nutshell.

Corporate communications is public relations, it’s media relations, community investments – sponsorships – but the bottom line is to protect and enhance the brand.

What are some of the ways you go about doing the job?

There is no typical day or week. We answer media inquiries. We try to think up interesting stories about our industry to pitch to media outlets. We look for ways we can help out in the community by providing underwriting support for health and wellness initiatives. We communicate to our members and our providers and our employers interesting information that will help them get the most from their benefits.

Why AEDs?

I think all the health plans locally look for opportunities to do things for the community at large. One of our colleagues in Rochester asked me about 13 years ago, “Did you ever think about donating an AED?” He had donated a couple to the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department. I thought that was interesting. Then, a day later, I got a call from the communications person at the Boulevard Mall asking, “Have you ever considered donating AEDs?” I thought, “Wow, look at that, the universe is talking to me,” so we purchased three AEDs: for one at each end of the mall and one in the middle.

Univera’s parent company (Rochester-based The Lifetime Healthcare Cos.) includes a service area that stretches from Buffalo to Watertown, Utica and Binghamton. We’ve placed about 150 AEDs across our 39 counties of upstate New York. In Western New York, we’ve placed about 45 units. When I say we placed them, we didn’t put the word out, “Call us if you want an AED.” We really look for places to place them. Just about all the places we’ve worked with, we have called them out of the blue, looking to work with them, to underwrite the cost of an AED.

You’ve donated quite a few to police agencies, including the Wyoming and Erie county sheriff’s offices. How did that start?

One day I was sitting waiting for my wife, Amy, to come out of Wegmans and there was a Rural Metro Ambulance parked nearby with the motor running, waiting for a call. It clicked in my head that where I live, in Williamsville, it’s very common to see one of the ambulance services waiting for a call. But we cover eight counties in Western New York and some of those areas are quite rural. In those areas, there isn’t a Wegmans or a shopping mall or an ambulance idling, waiting for a call. The first responder in rural Erie County or rural Chautauqua County or Wyoming County is likely to be a sheriff’s deputy. That got me thinking. We handle health insurance for Chautauqua County. I called and asked, “Do you have AEDs in your patrol cars?” They said, “We have some, but not enough to equip all our cars, our watercraft, the lockup.” They had eight or 10 in their cars. We provided underwriting support for 17 units, so now all of the cars, all of their water equipment and even their lockup has an AED.

Is it easy to use one?

You could hand it to a stranger on the street and say, “Use this device.” It looks like a child’s lunch box. You open it and it speaks to you, it gives you voice commands to follow. It has an electronic brain, so you couldn’t shock someone accidentally. It will tell you if a shock is advised. If it’s not advised, it won’t fire. If it is advised, It will tell you what to do.

They’re about a $2,500 item, so it’s not something you give out to any person who wants one. You have to maintain it. You have to check it regularly. You have to make sure the battery is charged, the spare is ready, the pads have gel to make better contact with the skin.

What was the reaction when you recently reached out to officials at Old Fort Niagara in Youngstown?

Old Fort Niagara State Park is isolated, a place where people are doing a lot of walking. I approached Bob Emerson, who runs the fort and he said, “That’s been on our wish list for a long time; it’s a 22-acre site, people traipse over a lot of territory but we never have been able to get it into the budget.”


On the Web: Read about the role Univera AEDs have played in WNY at