Spokane Journal of Business

Business coalition on health builds base

Group develops programs, will gather data with intent of stabilizing cost of care

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Dissatisfied with the continuing sharp upward trend in health-insurance premiums paid by businesses and their workers, an employer alliance has formed here to pursue a multipronged, locally focused strategy aimed at stabilizing health-care costs and maintaining affordable health-benefit packages.

The alliance, called the Inland Northwest Business Coalition on Health, plans to gather local data on the prevalence of major diseases to evaluate their effects on employee absenteeism and productivity, and will offer wellness and consumer-education programs to employers, says Dr. Norman Charney, its president and executive director. In addition, it hopes to pursue initiatives related to alternative care and behavioral health, and to explore establishing a purchasing cooperative, he says.

I believe the cumulative power of the employer has the ability to change things, says Charney, a semi-retired former insurance company medical director, family physician, college professor, and attorney.

After having spent the last 15 years of his career in health-care management, he says that lingering dissatisfaction with how the health-care insurance meets businesses needs led him to spearhead the formation of the coalition here six months ago.

I felt that businesses were not in control of what they purchased, and that they have come to view health-care insurance as just a continuous drain to the bottom line, he says. What he hopes to show through the coalition, he says, is that with a collaborative employer-based effort, health-care premiums can become an investment with a measurable return.

Rather than waiting for politicians to take action to counter soaring health-care costs that are hampering employers ability to maintain good access to benefit plans, We need to do it ourselves, he asserts. Wellness programs, disease-management programsthey can go a long way toward fixing the problem, and can be carried out by employers working collaboratively, he says.

In that regard, the coalition already has begun offering a smoking-cessation program to employers here, and is looking at sponsoring an obesity program, with other such lifestyle-related programs likely to follow, Charney says.

The coalition was founded last October, and so far includes about 25 paid members, representing 4,000 to 5,000 employees, but Charney claims that a total of about 150 employers have expressed interest in the alliance and he says he expects its membership to grow steadily. Its members include a mix of private businesses, health-care providers and insurers, and other employers. Membership dues are $100 a year, but some members are contributing substantially more than that, he says. The coalitions members include Sterling Savings Bank, Goodwill Industries of the Inland Northwest, Northern Quest Casino, Rockwood Clinic PS, Family Medicine Spokane, Family Home Care, Premera Blue Cross, Corkery & Jones Benefits Inc., Fruci & Associates PS, and the Health Improvement Partnership.

At least for now, the coalition remains largely a volunteer endeavor with limited financial resources, but it intends to fund most of its projects with grants, including larger contributions from some of its members, Charney says. It currently has an eight-member board that meets monthly, he says.

The coalition is one of about 90 such groups around the country that belong to the National Business Coalition on Health. That support-services and lobbying organization claims to include more than 7,000 large and small businesses nationwide representing more than 34 million employees and their families.

Health care, like politics, is local, says Gregg Lehman, the national coalitions president and CEO. While Washington (D.C.) may be the center of activity for policy decisions about health care, it is in the local markets that problems with cost, quality, and access to health care are acutely felt.

Charney says he considers the promotion of lifestyle choices aimed at avoiding the onset and recurrence of illness and diseases to be among the most important strategies the coalition here can pursue to reduce cost and eliminate wasteful health-care delivery practices. Those choices relate to things such as physical activity, nutrition, weight management, and smoking cessation, as well as to proper chronic-disease management for people suffering with conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and arthritis, he says.

Originally from New York, Charney spent most of his professional career in Southern California, obtaining his medical degree in 1957 and his law degree in 1971. He came to the Inland Northwest in December 1996 to work as regional medical director for Medical Service Corp. of Eastern Washington, now MSC incorporated as Premera Blue Cross.

Kim Crompton
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