George Howard

Countering Terror With Ex-CIA Agents

Corrections or additions?

This article by Barbara Fox was prepared for the

October 24, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights


Assist America: For Health Emergencies

The first phone calls coming in on September 11 were

from people stranded in Manhattan, desperate to find how to leave

the island. Then calls came from around the United States, from those

who were unexpectedly grounded. Then from 18 countries around the

world where travelers, among their other problems, would soon run

low on insulin and prescription medicines. Some of those in the Middle

East sought a safe haven.

Two dozen people at Assist America’s telephone center at Lawrence

Commons, near the Mercer Mall, fielded 107 questions in September

that were directly related to terrorist action. This crew is


to crises — they are the people who, when you break a bone in

Bolivia, can get you medivaced out of there and into a good American

hospital. Sleuthing out ferry schedules is not their usual job, but

they pride themselves on finding an answer to every call.

"When people realized they had our coverage, they reached out

to get any information they could," says George Howard, president

and CEO of the 11-year-old agency. "We don’t turn down requests

for help from anybody."

Assist America is a service provider for insurance companies; like

a hospital, it provides services for members of HMOs. It coordinates

travelers’ medical benefits for corporate insurers, and, through


companies run by ex-CIA and ex-Secret Service agents, it also helps

with security. Howard believes that including Assist America’s


in a benefits package is going to help insurance companies seal more

deals with human resources departments. "If a broker is looking

at four or five different choices, everybody looks pretty much the

same, but if one of those companies has our benefit at no additional

cost, then that will stand out," says Howard.

"Because of an event that happened here in the states, Americans

have a heightened sense that things can happen to you overseas,"

says Howard. "We expect to at least continue — or exceed —

our growth pattern."

Howard had his own personal experience with assistance services. When

his family was on vacation in Greece some years ago, his


son became very ill. "We did in fact call in and got a referral

to a hospital, and he was admitted because we were expected,"

says Howard, noting that while American hospitals are required to

take all comers, European hospitals are not. Doctors found the boy

was dehydrated. "He stayed for a day, was rehydrated, and had

a happy outcome."

The list of companies with policies that include Assist America


include Andersen Consulting, Boeing, Lucent Technologies, Kemper


Raytheon, and Schlumberger. Trade unions, such as the National

Association for the Self Employed (NAFE), IEEE, and the American


of Civil Engineers, also subscribe.

If you have an Assist America clause in your benefits package, and

you get sick when you are in a foreign country or even when you are

100 miles or more from your home, you dial the Assist America number

and the call desk takes care of everything.

First, it will arrange for you to be seen by a doctor

in Assist America’s network. Medicine overseas can be very good, but

Americans require a lot more handholding, says Howard. "We can

find U.S.-trained doctors practically anywhere in the world. We are

the only assistance company in the world that gives American-trained

case management with every case." If necessary, the company will

help you get admitted to a hospital or get medivaced to a better


If your stay will be a week or longer, Assist America will transport

a family member to stay with you.

Some harrowing episodes are related on the company’s website. An


on a consulting job in Antigua was injured when a heavy box fell on

his head. Assist America evacuated him immediately to Miami, where

doctors found he had fractured two vertebrae. A week later, after

successful surgery, Assist America "repatriated" him home

to New York for his convalescence.

Another member was on a cruise ship going to Cozumel, Mexico, when

he ruptured his bilateral tendon by falling on his knees during a

basketball game. Assist America arranged and paid for a private jet

air ambulance to Miami, where surgeons decided he needed immediate

surgery on both knees. So Assist America arranged for another private

air ambulance to his home in Pittsburgh, so he could spend his


recuperation period at home.

One episode on the Assist America home page tells how a covered


injured his leg and foot while climbing on a lawn chair on top of

his RV to adjust his antenna. On the way to the emergency room, to

which he was driving at high speed on his motorcycle, he was stopped

by police and ended up in jail. Assist America had to get him out

of jail and then fly him home in a first class seat that would


his cast.

At the time of this interview a student from one of Assist America’s

100 college clients was enroute to China, accompanied by a medical

escort prepared to deal with psychological disability.

Howard’s favorite example of case management was 10 years ago in


where the insured employee’s two-month old baby had meningitis and

septicemia, and the prognosis was death. A medivac to Western Europe

would have been too traumatic. As if by a miracle, Assist America

got the baby medivaced to a white hospital in South Africa, despite

the fact that Burundi did not have diplomatic relations with South

Africa, and that the baby was black. Racial barriers had not yet been

crossed there. Howard’s clever secret: "We told the doctor that

if you arrange everything and get the baby in, we will pay you in

Switzerland. It was an opportunity, at a time when South Africans

couldn’t get money out of the country, for the doctor to convert


in rand to Swiss francs."

Top Of Page
George Howard

George Howard’s mother was a university professor, and

his father was a Vienna-trained civil engineer who, as director of

a large engineering laboratory, traveled on planes for 5,000 miles

a month in the pre-jet era. "The bee in my bonnet was always that

I wanted to travel," says Howard.

A native Virginian, he went to Randolph Macon College in Virginia,

Class of 1967, and to Thunderbird, the American Graduate School

of International Management. During his career in the insurance


for Cigna, Continental Insurance, and AIG, he lived in Japan, Mexico

City, Santo Domingo, Athens, Madrid, Brussels, Tehran, and Tokyo —

but never quite lost his Virginia-inflected speech. "My oldest

son was born in Greece, and the younger one grew up in Tokyo. One

of the reasons I came home is that when I was telling my nine-year

old about the satellite-feed tape delay of the Super Bowl, he asked,

`What’s the Super Bowl?’ I remember thinking, it’s been a good run,

and I’d better get back home, so my kids will know they are


"While I was in Japan, I had appended an assistance product to

an insurance product and became friendly with International SOS


a Swiss company, and had the opportunity to run the company in the

U.S," says Howard. In 1990 Howard — by then living in central

New Jersey — started his own company, in partnership with a


firm. Now more than 14 million people are eligible for Assist America

help through corporate and trade union benefits packages. The


global network consists of more than 600,000 health providers.

To be an Assist America client, you must work for a

member company; you cannot buy a policy. Membership is built into

a benefits/medical plan, and it costs a relative pittance for each

person covered. Howard doesn’t want to reveal his strategy, merely

saying that it is "a low enough rate not to destabilize employee


With his insurance experience, Howard applied special risk principles

to his product and designed a policy backed up by syndicates at


of London. The fee that Access America gets from member corporations

pays for the Lloyd’s insurance, network maintenance, operations center

expenses, and liability insurance.

Running a company like this requires special skills. "When you

try to run a 9 to 5 business on one side, and a 24-hour alarm center

on the other side, they have different mind sets. Those with emergency

dispatch credentials are motivated because they want to help a person.

You have to work with them in different ways," says Howard.

"When I first got in this business," he says, "an HR lady

said we had to talk about hiring a nurse. Fine, I said. `It’s got

to be a bilingual nurse, a Spanish RN.’ Fine, I said. `We also need

an RN who speaks Spanish willing to work midnight to 5 a.m.’ I


for the first time how different this business was."

Howard’s first office was at the Carnegie Center, and his current

headquarters is in 1,500 square feet at 1 Palmer Square, where he

has eight employees. Just this fall the company opened the 2,500


foot call center at Lawrence Commons, where 22 people share


shifts. "We had outsourced a lot of our services for years, and

we decided to take everything in the house ourselves," says


"It’s a quality control thing. We have Emergency Medical


(EMTs) answering the phone. They are good. They are the people to

count on in a real emergency."

The EMTs were drawn into the crisis on September 11. "We get


information from public sources — we have three flat-screen TVs

and our own sources," says Howard, explaining how two EMT staff

members went to the World Trade Center just after the calls started

coming in. "Those were the guys who could get through. They ended

up helping, but the reason they were there was to stream information

back to us."

Having just one worldwide call center is unusual in this business.

Howard’s European and Asian competitors believe that, in order to

deliver services in a country, they have to have alarm services there.

"Because telecommunications was so bad when the assistance


was started, most of the world’s assistance companies have 15 or 20

alarm centers around the world. Back then, in Europe or Asia, it could

take you 90 minutes to get an outside line."

Since then, telecom services have developed


yet the competing services are still maintaining all their mini


"I have to say, quite frankly, one of the reasons we have been

successful is luck," Howard says. "This call center had


to do with our original business model. We felt we had to have the

alarm centers out there too. We were outsourcing the alarm centers

to a place in Maryland."

Talent in the town where he lived was another lucky happenstance.

On the call desk now are speakers of seven languages: English,


Mandarin, Cantonese, German, French, and Greek. When an instantaneous

translation is needed, who better to call on than the people at the

world headquarters of Berlitz International in Alexander Park. And

the proprietary software that runs the operation ("the best in

the world" says the modest Howard) comes from Bob Weber of


who just happens to be Howard’s Princeton Junction neighbor.

Howard says he dominates his niche. Others focus on selling benefits

policies to travel agents, credit card holders, and tour operators.

"And we are the only company in the world that doesn’t screen

for pre-existing conditions," he says.

Paying for the claims can be expensive. Doctors get about $200 for

a consultation, in person or over the phone. For a Third World doctor,

that is a lot of money. Evacuations are staged out of Atlanta,


the base the anesthesiologist who is director of medical services.

The company has prenegotiated agreements with airlines that can meet

FAA standards for stretcher patients. Emergency evacuations can be

$25,000 to 35,000, and they have gone up to $200,000.

But Howard doesn’t have to worry about costs. He can concentrate on

the patients. "As soon as we have medical authorization, it is

paid for by our policy at Lloyd’s. I don’t think anybody treats


like we do. If an Englishman gets sick in France, you throw him in

the back of a pickup truck to take him back to England, and he’s


But you have to hold an American’s hand."

— Barbara Fox

Assist America, 1 Palmer Square, Suite 315,


08542. George Howard, president. 609-921-0868; fax, 609-921-0933.

Assist America Services Inc., 3371 Route 1,


Commons, Suite 205, Lawrenceville 08648. Diana Heredia, operations

manager. 609-452-0533; fax, 609-452-2042.

Top Of Page
Countering Terror With Ex-CIA Agents

On a for-fee basis, Assist America clients have access

to such services as evacuation or crisis planning, security


key employee protection, and counter terrorism planning. Assist


is affiliated with two strategic security and risk management firms

providing services under the "SecurAssist" plan. Security

Management International is headed by ex-CIA agents, and the Annapolis

Group consists of former Secret Service agents and emergency response


"Someone who enrolls in the SecurAssist program gets a laundry

list of benefits," says George Howard, CEO of Assist America.

"If they sign up and say they have operations in six countries,

including Indonesia, we have Security Management International and

the Annapolis Group approach them and inform them of their potential


Basic disaster-planning packages are available. For a 50-person


at one location the package would cost from $5,000 to $7,500. A two

or three-person team would provide a high level risk assessment,


plan and walk through, physical security survey, employee briefings,

HR planning, redundancy of operations, and business resumption plans.

"This package is tailored for — God forbid — the same

kinds of things that happened at the World Trade Center. It is


to see how many people are not prepared for that," says John


managing director of the Annapolis Group. He spent 21 years in the

U.S. Secret Service and now teaches at George Washington University.

"We interview the executives, talk to all employees about how

to handle mail, put the plan together, and practice pushing the button

to evacuate the building. You want to mitigate your risk as much as

possible." This package can generally be delivered in two or three

days. Police and fire departments can help with fire and evacuation

planning and bomb threats, but they won’t be able to advise on


issues, he says. For instance, his clients keep duplicate or off-site

personnel files with fingerprints and hair samples for potential DNA

identification. "There should not be any privacy issues if it

is done correctly," he says.

Vezeris says the number of companies that need this service is


unlimited. "The overwhelming number of companies have not


says Vezeris. "If they do have an evacuation plan, it is some

staircase diagram. At a session with 30 high level executives, it

was impressive to find out that not one in the audience was satisfied

with their company’s planning."

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