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Obama brings business critics inside tent on healthcare reform -- will it work?

May 12, 2009 | 10:35 am

Sixteen years ago, then-First Lady Hillary Clinton offered an ambitious healthcare reform plan that crashed on the shoals of business objections to a government-run system.

Now President Obama is hoping to silence those business critics of government solutions to healthcare insurance -- or at least quiet them -- by inviting them inside the tent. Obama, who has talked about how his mother died of breast cancer as she filled out myriad forms in search of treatment, has pledged to reform the nation's complex and often inadequate system this year.

On Monday, he opened the conversation with a meeting of business and labor leaders, warning that ballooning healthcare costs are hurting business innovation and strangling government budgets, even as 46 million Americans go without health insurance coverage.

Today he sat down again at a round-table with business leaders to talk about the problem of holding down costs, the first plank in his administration's push to get a bill through Congress this year.

THE PRESIDENT:  Hello, everybody. We just had a wonderful conversation that is a corollary to the discussion that I had yesterday.  And you may be seeing a theme, this was -- we're doing some stuff on healthcare because I think the country is geared up, businesses are geared up, families are geared up, to go ahead and start solving some of our extraordinary healthcare system problems.

Yesterday we focused a lot on cost. One element of cost is that where companies are able to take initiatives to make their employees healthier, to give them incentives and mechanisms to improve their wellness and to prevent disease, companies see their bottom lines improve.

And so what we've done is to gather together a group today -- some of the best practitioners of prevention and wellness, wellness programs -- in the private sector.  You have companies like Safeway that have been able to hold their costs flat for their employees at a time when other companies are seeing double-digit inflation in their healthcare.

You've got terrific innovations at companies like Microsoft, where they actually have used home visits of doctors to reduce the utilization of emergency room care and are saving themselves millions of dollars.

We've got the Hotel Employees Union that has been taking data and working individually with providers as well as their membership, working with the employer and the employee as well as the providers, and seeing huge reductions in some of the costs related to chronic illnesses.

Johnson & Johnson has been a leader in this area since 1978.  Pitney Bowes has been taking similar approaches and seeing millions of dollars in savings to their bottom line.  The Ohio Department of Public Health has been doing terrific work with respect to their state employees as well as spreading the message across the state.

And then REI, which has to be fit since they're a fitness company -- (laughter) -- has been doing work that allows them to provide healthcare coverage, health insurance, not only to their full-time employees but also their part-time employees.  Every single employee is covered, but part of the reason they're able to do it is because they put a big emphasis on prevention and wellness.

So what we've done here today is to gather together some of these stories and best practices to make sure that they are going to be informing the healthcare reform discussions that take place here in Washington.  There's no quick fix, there's no silver bullet.  When you hear what Safeway or Johnson & Johnson or any of these other companies have done, what you've seen is sustained experimentation over many years and a shift in incentive structures so that employees see concrete benefits as a consequence of them stopping smoking or losing weight or getting exercise, working with providers -- the provider incentives are aligned with the employee incentives as well, and changing the culture of a company.

Now, if we can do that in individual companies, there's no reason why we can't do that for a country as a whole.  Part of what we want to do here, starting here today is to lift up these best practices so other companies can identify and potentially implement them; but also to make sure that when we think about how we're going to reform the healthcare system as a whole, when we think about things like Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements, when we think about how we can make the system more efficient, that we're not just doing this in the abstract, but we're actually taking proven measures that have been applied in the private sector and seeing how we can apply those, for example, to federal employees and our employee healthcare system.  All this designed to save taxpayers money, save businesses money and ultimately make the American people healthier and happier and make sure that we're getting a better bang for our healthcare dollar.

So it's been a terrific conversation.  This will be a part of the ongoing process that we're developing over the next several months and I appreciate all of you for participating in a wonderful conversation.

All right.  Thank you, guys.

-- Johanna Neuman

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