Never have so many people eaten so few desserts at a healthcare industry luncheon. How could they after hearing presentation after presentation on how to create a healthierand consequently more productive and less costlyworkforce in the U.S. That evenings reception? Lonely bartenders and hors doeuvre servers treated like they were passing out botulism wraps.
Welcome to the National Business Coalition on Healths annual conference held earlier this month in Washington. Educational, yes. Fattening, no. How could anyone eat or drink or light up after listening to two-and-a-half days of sessions on creating financial incentives to get workers to eat right, stop smoking, start exercising, seek preventive care and take medicine to either stay healthy or control chronic medical conditions.
(In the interest of full disclosure, the NBCH was one of two co-sponsors of our first Healthcare Purchasing Power Survey, which appeared in the Nov. 10 issue of Modern Healthcare. The Leapfrog Group was the other co-sponsor. The NBCH distributed the Nov. 10 issue, which included a guest commentary by Andrew Webber, the NBCHs president and chief executive officer, at the meeting.)
It seems that business coalitions and their employer members finally are serious about lowering their operating costs and boosting productivity by improving employee health status. Having covered healthcare for more than 25 years, I was around when business coalitions first burst onto the scene years ago, all dedicated to helping their local employers control their healthcare costs. But they didnt live up to that promise. Rather than working with local hospitals and doctors to provide better value to them in terms of what outcomes they got in exchange for what they paid, they took the easy route. Employers dropped first-dollar coverage; they cut back on traditional indemnity coverage; they pushed employees into restrictive managed-care plans; they shifted premium dollars to workers; they forced employees into high-deductible plans; or they dropped coverage altogether. They did everything except get serious about controlling their healthcare costs by creating a healthier workforce.
A number of outside speakers at the meeting reminded the attendees of their past failure to get aggressive on controlling healthcare spending. Among them were Gerald Shea, assistant to the president for external affairs at the AFL-CIO; Bruce Bradley, the former director of healthcare strategy and public policy at General Motors Corp.; and Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. All in their own way urged the business community to get more involved.
As John Castellani, president of the Business Roundtable, noted during his keynote address at the conference: If the business community doesnt take action now, someone else will. And that someone likely will be the government, an option that Castellani said will stifle innovation.
Topping employers list of innovations is a value-based benefits package that provides financial incentives to employees to take better care of themselves so they can avoid expensive doctor or hospital visits. You need look no further than the conference brochure to discover who the business community has partnered with on the effort: the pharmaceutical industry. All the big names were there either with exhibit booths, sponsoring a specific education track or attaching their name to one NBCH award or another. Employers create financial incentives for employees to use drugs to stay or get healthy and avoid costly medical care, and drugmakers are willing to help and cash in.
At this meeting, unlike most of the industry conferences I attend, healthcare providers and insurers are the bad guys. Greedy hospitals and doctors charge outrageous prices for often unnecessary or avoidable care, and insurers cover the bills and earn outrageous profits by charging sky-high premiums to businesses for coverage for their employees. At my lunch table, one drug company executive complained that every hospital he visits has scaffolding around it. Another lunch companion said medical campuses are growing unabated in the cities he frequents.
One coalition announced a two-year national pilot project, dubbed the Kansas City Collaborative, or KC2, to create and provide tools to other business coalitions interested in designing their own value-based benefits plans for their respective business members. The three partners in the pilot project are the Mid-America Coalition on Health Care, the National Business Coalition on Health and Pfizer, which also sponsored the session at which William Bruning, president and CEO of the Mid-America Coalition on Health Care, announced the program. I set up an interview with Bruning, and two people from Pfizer unexpectedly showed up. Maybe they decided to sit in on the interview after Bruning told the attendees during the Pfizer-sponsored session that one of the pilots challenges is to convince companies that the pilot is not just about giving away drugs.
Another hint at whos holding the purse strings occurred after the luncheon keynote address by Gerberding, who gave a passionate presentation on the launch of a new national program to improve the health status of the U.S. as a nation. After her formal talk ended right as her time slot expired, she said she welcomed questions from the audience. But before anyone could ask one, Webber ran up on stage, whispered in her ear and escorted her offstage. He then went back on stage and told the crowd that the meeting needed to stay on schedule. One of the next breakout sessions was sponsored by drugmaker Sanofi Aventis.
I stayed behind and ate the mixed berries with whipped cream, but I did not eat the chocolate tulip cup they came in.
David Burda is editor of Modern Healthcare magazine.