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Forum focuses on proposed healthcare reform

JACKSON — Ways businesses can lower insurance premium costs and potential state challenges from Washington healthcare reform were the subjects of the Business of Health Care forum hosted by the Mississippi College School of Business Tuesday at the Jackson Convention Complex.

Companies that invest money in preventative care for employees save in the long run, said Bill Lee, CEO of the BankPlus program WellnessPlus.

BankPlus has had so much success with its wellness program that it is in the process of marketing and selling it to other businesses. It has a 95 percent participation rate among employees, to whom it provides premium discounts, cash prizes and days off as rewards for participation, Lee said.

A WellnessPlus web site keeps a health calendar that employees that they can use to track exercise and calorie intake.

BankPlus expects employees to provide excellent customer service, and the wellness program is a way to show them that they are valued by the company, Lee said. Healthy employees are more productive and absent less often.

Lee also said 75 percent of business healthcare costs go toward preventable diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Nationwide, 20 percent of the population consumes 80 percent of medical dollars spent.

Southern Farm Bureau has also had success with its expanding wellness program, which includes an on-site clinic, a walking trail, healthy cooking demonstrations, a newsletter on wellness and frequent farmer’s market, said Billy Sims, vice president of human resources.

Companies must combat rising premiums, Sims said. One employee, for instance, required a "designer drug" that cost $700,000 a year and increased the cost of premiums for the company as a whole, he said.

The highest healthcare cost driver is lifestyle, said Dr. Thomas Fenter, corporate medical advisor for Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Mississippi. Regardless of what healthcare reforms get passed in Washington, we must get our lifestyles under control, Fenter said. Mississippi spent $719 million on tobacco-related health problems last year, he said.

Dr. Randy Easterling, president of the Mississippi State Medical Association, concurred. Americans are great at emergency room and surgical care, he said, but fall behind on management of common chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease.

Easterling said the United States needed healthcare reform but not a government-run program. He favors tort reform and limitations on restrictions for pre-existing conditions.

Keynote speaker Gov. Haley Barbour said individuals sometimes confuse employee healthcare with medical care. Investing in healthy employees is good business and saves money in the long run. Healthy people work more, he said.

A government-run healthcare plan could kill Mississippi small businesses, Barbour said. If current Washington plans are implemented, small businesses not providing insurance would be fined $750 per employee. Also, rates for individuals would increase by more than $1,000, and family rates would increase by more than $3,000. Small businesses provide the largest number of jobs and the most job growth in the state.

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