Panel Says Health Care Benefit Changes Needed

By Staff Report

Jul. 24, 2009

Fundamental changes in health care and employee benefit programs are needed to solve the problems of soaring costs, low care quality and access to health care services, a panel of experts said Friday, July 24.

Speaking at a Chicago forum on national health care reform and its effect on Illinois, the panelists outlined major problems in the health care system and suggested ways to address those issues.

“Employers’ house of benefits needs an extreme makeover,” said Larry Boress, president and CEO of the Midwest Business Group on Health, a Chicago-based coalition that hosted the forum with the National Coalition on Health Care.

He noted that increases in health care premiums are outpacing wages and consuming retirement savings. While employers spend billions of dollars on benefits, quality of care often remains low, Boress said.

“Why are employers involved in health care? Why do we offer benefits? It’s because we have to recruit and retain employees and keep them productive,” Boress said. Employers bear part of the responsibility for deterioration of quality because they “treat health care as an expense, not an investment” in their employees, he said.

In an ideal health care system, “patients can choose their doctors and hospitals, they are sensitive to cost and quality, and they are engaged in their own health,” he said. Similarly, “purchasers would encourage employees to make cost-effective decisions and pay for quality care.”

Joel Miller, senior vice president at the National Coalition on Health Care, cited a Kaiser Family Foundation survey showing that health insurance premiums increased 119 percent while workers’ earnings rose only 34 percent, slightly ahead of inflation, during the period of 1999-2008.

“By 2019, total health care coverage costs for employers could reach $900 billion a year,” Miller said. “Experts estimate that small businesses will pay $2.4 trillion for health insurance over the next 10 years. By 2018, 1.7 million workers will have job-lock; that means they won’t leave” employer-based health plans “for fear of losing their coverage.”

Dr. James Galloway, assistant U.S. surgeon general and acting regional director for the Department of Health and Human Services in the Midwest, said the only way he sees to reduce health care costs is “by reducing the chronic-disease burden” on families and businesses. “We must build and ignite a social movement” to address chronic diseases such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes, he said.

Dr. Mark Rosenberg, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ committee on federal affairs, said a priority for national health care reform should be a program that covers all children. He said a key to health benefit packages for children should be early and periodic diagnostic screening.

Filed by Regis Coccia of Business Insurance, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, e-mail

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