Remaking the Health Care System Q & A With Sen. Ron Wyden

By Staff Report

Jun. 15, 2007

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, is trying to resolve what may be the primary domestic issue of the 2008 presidential election—health care—in 2007. Wyden introduced the Healthy Americans Act into the Senate this year with some help from employers such as Safeway CEO Steve Burd, who on May 7 announced his own employer-led coalition on health care reform. Wyden’s bill would remove employers from the health care equation. Under the measure, individuals would purchase coverage directly from private insurers. Companies would make contributions into the system based in part on the number of people they employ. The bill also establishes incentives for prevention and wellness. Wyden recently spoke with Workforce Managementstaff writer Jeremy Smerd.

Workforce Management: Why should employers support legislation that eliminates their role providing health care benefits?

Ron Wyden: It’s going to make them more competitive in the global marketplace. They are getting pounded today … because of a historical accident. They are getting clobbered because back in the 1940s, before they were competing in a global economy, health care was pushed onto the employer by accident, through wage and price controls. That may have made sense 60 years ago, but it doesn’t make sense today when the people who own businesses are seeing their workers change jobs constantly. The world is all about portability and convenience, and I think it’s time to cut the cord between employment and health insurance. And that is why I’ve proposed the bill.

WM: Employers who say health benefits are a way to attract employees in a competitive marketplace may differ with your perspective.

Wyden: I require that people buy a basic package: prevention, outpatient, inpatient hospitalization and catastrophic. I think there will be very fertile ground for employers to supplement that package in order to attract quality workers, and I think that is very appropriate. What I am trying to do is say, “Let’s figure out a way that makes sense for workers and businesses so that everybody can get a basic package.” But, of course, it’s a free society and people will choose to buy even more. And I think a prime opportunity for employers to attract good workers is to come in and say, “The Healthy Americans Act requires that you buy this basic coverage. But we really want you, so we’re going to offer A, B and C on top of that.”

WM: Chronic illness is a huge contributor to health care costs. And employers are investing in ways to manage diseases to avoid sick workers, high costs and lost productivity. How does your legislation address the need to improve the health of workers?

Wyden: Perhaps the leading company in the United States, the leading employer that has focused on prevention, is Safeway. And their CEO, Steve Burd, stood with me the day I proposed my legislation. So there’s no question that employers want to work in a preventive kind of area. Employers may choose to supplement what I am offering in terms of preventive benefits—gym benefits and incentives for employees to be involved in various kinds of preventive efforts. All that will go forward. But the reason employers are excited about my legislation—which is called the Healthy Americans Act for a reason—is because I feel so strongly about health care and not sick care. Employers are saying the Healthy Americans Act really gets it right in terms of prevention.

WM: How so? Can you be more specific?

Wyden: If an employee signs up for health coverage under the Healthy Americans Act, their plan would have to inform them of various preventive and wellness programs. The worker is not required to do anything, but if a worker took the child to do the preventive and wellness program, then the worker is eligible for a reduction in the worker’s premium. In the legislation, it’s spelled out.

WM: If an employer adds supplemental benefits, do they get a tax break?

Wyden: No. And the question is, if you’re going to go to a market-based system and reward competition, which is what I’m doing, I don’t know why you throw more tax breaks on top of what we’re already doing. Most of the flak we’re getting, in particular on the liberal side, [is] people saying, “You’re doing too much for employers as it is.”

Workforce Management, May 21, 2007, p. 6Subscribe Now!

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