Monday, September 22, 2008

Scone: Employers snatching 'low-hanging fruit' in health care reform effort

Greetings from National Harbor, Md., at the 21st annual Benefits Forum & Expo, where EBN opened its annual conference on a high note with Morton Kondracke, editor of Roll Call, who hasn't lost his knack for blunt honesty that he honed as a television political commentator over several decades.

Plainly calling a spade a gardening tool, Kondracke told BFE attendees on Sunday that "the world changed last week," referring to the current banking crisis and impending government bailout, which means that "$1.3 trillion we now won't get to spend on anything except bailing out the financial system."

Coincidentally, he pointed out, that $1.3 trillion is about the same amount Democratic nominee Barack Obama proposes to spend in outlays to implement his health care plan, as well as the cost to cover the high-risk insurance pool Republican nominee John McCain would create in his plan.

But the bailout of the financial markets "seriously hinders anyone doing anything about health care, no matter who the president is. Even before this crisis, health care was moving down on the American priority list, and now it's gone even further. The new fiscal reality means we're looking at something very different from what either Sen. McCain or Obama want."

Instead of sweeping new plans, Kondracke urges stakeholders to pick "low-hanging fruit," like adopting standards in health IT, advancing disease management and emphasizing preventive care -- all of which employers already are doing, to the extent that such decisions are within their control.

Despite the pretty dismal financial news and outlook for true health care reform, hearing Kondracke speak made me feel encouraged. The more immediate health care changes he advocated are ones that employers have been implementing steadily over the last decade. Currently, the majority of you have disease management programs and wellness programs stressing prevention, and are adding to them annually. You're taking on a truly difficult situation and rather than waiting on Congress to create solutions, you're creating your own.

Employers can't control Washington, but surely are taking the low-hanging lemons Kondracke pointed to and are making great lemonade. I say keep picking.

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