Just in time: Blue Cross corporate and Minnesota state history, literally encapsulated

12 July 2023

EAGAN, Minn. — Just a month before their contents would have been lost forever, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota employees stumbled upon a bit of history: two forgotten time capsules hidden in the company’s Eagan headquarters.

The discovery began as facility managers were going through archives at the 442,000-square-foot building. They spotted something curious.

“We discovered architectural drawings blueprints,” said Mira LaNasa, public relations specialist at the health insurer. “They are huge booklets that take up an entire picnic table with detailed drawings of where everything is.”

By chance, a manager spotted an unusual marking on one of the thousands of pages. “It indicated time capsules located at the front of the building,” LaNasa said.

No one currently at the company remembered hearing about time capsules. After 50 years at the Eagan location, the company was preparing to move out of the building, forever.

A manager snapped a photo of the marking and put the architectural drawings away. Due to the volume of materials at the site, BCBS staff have never been able to relocate that particular page of the architectural drawings.

But the snapshot was enough.

Treasure hunt

The drawings indicated that the time capsules were buried in the cornerstones of the building, which were labeled “1950” and “1970.”

Monica Engel, senior vice president of government markets for Blue Cross, said she always assumed the years were carved there to commemorate the company’s previous moves: one in St. Paul around 1950 and then to the Eagan location in 1970, around the time that Minnesota Blue Cross merged with Blue Shield of Minnesota.

“Having walked by these cornerstones in our main building for days on end in all of the years I’ve been here, I had no idea there was something so cool buried beneath these cornerstones,” said Engel, who has worked for the organization for 33 years.

When American Masonry extracted two time capsules from the cornerstones, it was clear they had not only been buried, but sealed in metal. It took screwdrivers and a saw to open the capsules.

The older capsule contained materials as early as the 1930s and was evidently sealed in 1950. The second capsule appeared to have been sealed in 1970.

Both capsules were found behind the “1970” cornerstone, which LaNasa believes is because the 1950 capsule was originally created while Blue Cross was still in St. Paul and was then brought to the Eagan building and reburied with a second capsule in 1970.

Back to the future

The contents of the time capsules told two stories: one is a trip back in time to 1950s and 70s Minnesota, and the other, a message for the future.

The paper contents were very well preserved. “I was surprised at what good shape the materials were in,” said Kathryn Hujda, manuscripts curator at the Minnesota Historical Society. Because the documents were sealed in metal and kept away from water, everything was legible and intact.

Documents included photos, annual reports, marketing materials and newspaper clippings. In the 1970 capsule, there was a full copy of the Pioneer Press dated Feb. 13, 1970, sold for 10 cents.

Many of the documents in the 1950s capsule focus on executive actions in the upper ranks of the company’s operation. Multiple glossy black and white photographs show organization presidents posing together, executives alongside the Minnesota governor, and even a set of handwritten ballots from a board meeting.

In contrast, the 1970 capsule focuses on more day-to-day items like contracts, pamphlets and the largest item, the Pioneer Press newspaper.

One document appears to solicit recruits for the new BCBS office in Eagan by advertising the construction of Interstate 35E. Though the interstate was not completed through Eagan until the mid-1980s, it appears as though expectations were high when the 1970 time capsule was sealed.

But both capsules contain items that feature the roots of Blue Cross Blue Shield: the members.

The 1950 capsule contains a letter from one thankful member. “Dear Mr. Calvin,” the letter reads, “You may be sure that I thank my lucky stars for every minute that I’ve been in the Blue Cross organization. The financial protection most certainly does contribute to my peace of mind.”

The headline of a Pioneer Press clipping dated July 14, 1939, reads “Hospital Service Honors 50,000th Patient.” The article tells the story of Miss Floyd Haas and Mrs. Cecil Eggleston, who visited the hospital for a tonsillectomy and to deliver a baby, respectively. Their two visits marked the Blue Cross organization’s “1,500,000th dollar” in assisted hospital bills. To celebrate the milestone, the organization visited the women in the hospital to gift them each a new purse.

Tales to tell 

On Tuesday, BCBS formally handed the time capsule contents to the Minnesota Historical Society at the History Center in St. Paul. The contents will be preserved in the History Center’s climate-controlled archival facilities, and they will be accessible to the public in the Gale Family Library. The contents will be added to an already-established collection of BCBS records.

The Historical Society is excited to house the records. Anyone can understand why preserving a diary or personal record might have historical significance, but Hujda says organizational records can tell tales of their own.

For example, one chart in the BCBS time capsule is labeled “Trend of Maternity Care (1941-1950).” As Hujda pointed out, there was a steep decline from 1943 to 1944 and then, starting around 1944 to 1946, there’s a sharp increase.

For the people who created the time capsule, “it seemed just a reporting of the facts,” Hujda said. “But our modern sensibility can look back and make the connections; that’s the baby boom.”

Minnesota leads the nation

Another thing the time capsules reveal is Minnesota’s leadership on the national health care scene.

In 1933, seven St. Paul hospitals, noticing how many hospital beds were going empty because of the Great Depression, created the nation’s first prepaid health care network.

Members of the “Minnesota Hospital Services Association” could receive up to 21 days of care in one of seven hospitals: Bethesda, Midway, Charles T. Miller, Mounds Park, St. John’s, St. Luke’s, and West Side General. By 1935, the association had expanded to 16 member hospitals in St. Paul and Minneapolis.

The monthly membership fee? 75 cents.

In 1934, the Minnesota Hospital Services Association enlisted the help of artist Joseph Binder to create an advertisement. Binder, a world-renowned art-deco artist who had designed posters for the World’s Fair, was a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota. The poster he designed for the Association featured a nurse wearing a blue cross armband.

Individuals seeking insurance began asking for “blue cross insurance.” The name stuck.

In 1939, Blue Cross expanded its hospital coverage outside the Twin Cities, and in 1950 they merged with Minnesota Indemnity Incorporation, which specialized in clinic insurance, offering coverage to individuals as well as employers.

Business and politics

What was it that allowed Minnesota to lead the nation in the development of modern health insurance?

“Minnesota has a history in health care and health technology that makes it a particularly good place for an organization like Blue Cross and Blue Shield to be founded,” Hujda said.

The 1970 capsule included a 1966 photo documenting a partnership between Blue Cross and then-Minneapolis-based Honeywell to introduce a computerized data sharing service for Twin Cities area hospitals. According to the photo’s caption, such technology was “the first of its kind to go into operation in the hospital field.”

“These industries have provided scaffolding and support for each other,” Hujda said.

Another major boon for the budding health insurance industry in Minnesota was state politics. The 1950 time capsule included a photo of Gov. Harold Stassen signing legislation in 1941 which allowed Blue Cross to operate as a nonprofit. Throughout the 20th century, Minnesota legislation supported health insurers and the rise of HMOs after The Health Maintenance Act of 1973.

Though there has been much development in Minnesota health care, the capsule showed BCBS employees of today that some things have remained the same.

“Back then, they were seeking to provide quality care at an affordable price. We very much are living that legacy. That is the work that is in front of us today. Our company values and mission have remained the same,” Engel says.

Today, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota has more members, products, and services than any other nonprofit health plan in the state. This year marks its 90th anniversary.


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