Obama's meeting with business leaders spotlights innovation to boost health, cut costs

By Bernie Monegain
10:52 AM

Innovation became the buzzword as President Barack Obama met Tuesday with chief executives of business, unions and government to talk about the private sector's role in encouraging health.

The meeting followed Obama's Monday meeting with key healthcare industry players – insurance companies and professional associations – who pledged to cut $2 trillion in healthcare costs over a decade.

Both meetings spotlighted the runaway costs of healthcare and suggested that information technology could help rein in the costs.

Tuesday's meeting included Steve Burd of Safeway; Cecily Hall of Microsoft; Jerry Reeves, of the Hotel and Restaurant Workers' Union's welfare fund; White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel; OMB Director Peter Orszag; Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to the president; Bill Weldon of Johnson & Johnson; Murray Martin of Pitney Bowes; Nancy-Ann DeParle, the White House director of health reform; Larry Summers, director of the White House economic council; Alvin Jackson of the Ohio Department of Health; and Sally Jewel of REI.

Obama said the meeting was scheduled to collect stories and ``best practices'' from health-aware employers and use this data to inform ``the healthcare reform discussions that take place here in Washington.'' He noted that some employers provide incentives to encourage employees to stop smoking or lose weight or work out.

"If we can do that in individual companies, there's no reason why we can't do that for a country as a whole," he said.

According to a White House statement, "The president hopes that by encouraging more employers to adopt similar programs, we can improve the productivity of our workforce, delay or avoid many of the complications of chronic diseases and slow medical cost growth."

The innovations included monitoring chronic conditions, providing doctors in the workplace, online health management programs, health clinics, fitness centers and preventive screenings.

The White House provided summaries of workforce innovations discussed at the meeting.

  • H.E.R.E.I.U. Welfare Fund (Jerry Reeves, MD, chief medical officer):  The Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union Welfare Fund offers multi-employer health insurance coverage for 90,000 eligible employees and their family members. It redesigned its health benefits and health plan administration and implemented wellness and chronic disease management programs to generate millions of dollars in overall savings. The fund has also aligned incentives with desired behaviors by informing patients which physicians are high-performing, providing performance bonuses to high-performing doctors and giving pregnant patients incentives to receive prenatal care. These initiatives have engaged workers to improve their health through widespread use of employee risk assessments, risk-based interventions and behavior change programs. The fund also has worksite pharmacies that give out free generic drugs for chronic conditions and provide special care centers for workers and family members who have high cost and complex chronic conditions.
  • Johnson & Johnson (Bill Weldon, chairman of the board and CEO): Johnson & Johnson has one of the longest-running workplace health programs in the United States. The company has a sophisticated set of disease management and prevention interventions, risk-based incentives, pedometers/exercise goals, treadmills available for offices and other health related programs. According to its recent employee health scorecard, the company's health initiatives avoided an estimated $15.9 million in healthcare costs in 2007. As well, from the late 1990s to 2006, smoking in the workforce declined from 12 percent to 4 percent, high blood pressure dropped from 14 percent to 6 percent and high cholesterol went from 19 percent to 6 percent. A 2002 Rand study found that Johnson & Johnson's initiatives had improved employee health and employees and saved an average of $225 per year because of a reduced need for doctor visits.
  • Microsoft (Cecily Hall, director of U.S. Benefits):  Microsoft creates personalized health goals and has a staff of doctors who make house calls to avoid emergency room visits. Its obesity program assigns employees to a primary care doctor, behavior health specialist and nutritionist, and Microsoft provides free meals consistent with diet recommendations to eat on site or to take home. The result has been low premium growth and a healthier workforce.
  • The Ohio Department of Health (Alvin Jackson, director): The state of Ohio created a "Take Charge! Live Well!" program to reduce health risk factors for state workers, with more than 50 percent of eligible workers participating. Until 2005, healthcare programs for state employees focused on disease management and improving the health of high-risk groups. After reviewing data, the state discovered that while 27 percent of total healthcare costs were related to high-risk employees, 44 percent of costs were associated with preventable conditions. Ohio's program includes online and telephone health assessments, health coaching, an online health improvement program, on-site employee health screenings (offered at about 40 locations), preventive care, chronic condition management and monetary incentives of up to $100, or $200 when spouses are enrolled, if employees complete a health assessment and participate in a health improvement program.
  • Pitney Bowes (Murray Martin, chairman of the board, president and CEO): Pitney Bowes offers onsite comprehensive health clinics and fitness centers, redesigned food merchandizing and prices in their cafeterias, incentives management for the health of their employees and low-cost drugs for chronic diseases. The company has also adopted infection control practices and offers low-cost or no-cost preventive screenings and immunizations on-site and off-site. The company's initiatives and its commitment to increase employee participation in managing their own health have resulted in $40 million in savings over the last nine years.
  • REI (Sally Jewell, president and CEO): REI offers health benefits to all full and part-time workers. The company offers employees support for outdoor activities including outdoor gear and apparel discounts, free rentals and outdoor challenge grants. REI employees can earn extra healthy lifestyle dollars to put toward the cost of coverage by engaging in specific "good behaviors," such as getting regular aerobic exercise. REI also supports personal health goals and provides equipment support, discounts and time off so employees can achieve their goals.
  • Safeway (Steve Burd, president and CEO): Safeway rewards employees' healthy behaviors and improved adherence to recommended treatments for chronic diseases. More than 74 percent of the company's 30,000 nonunion workers have signed up for its "Healthy Measures" program, in which participants undergo screening tests (including cholesterol, blood pressure and weight control) and those who score well pay lower health premiums. Safeway has saved millions by making employees accountable for their weight, smoking, cholesterol and blood pressure. The company also has a free fitness center at its headquarters, offers gym membership discounts and provides a 24-hour nurse health hotline. In 2006, Safeway's efforts reduced total healthcare spending by 13 percent, and employees who signed up have saved more than 20 percent on their premiums.