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ALAN TURNER — Healthy workplaces and the future of American health care

ALAN TURNER

ALAN TURNER

Among the crowded field of presidential candidates are some who are openly talking about the need to terminate Medicare.  To be sure, the suggestion isn’t to end the program for retirees who are already covered, or perhaps those who will be eligible for coverage in the next few years, but instead, to simply cut it for people who are at a certain age.  What would that benchmark be?  People who are currently in their 50s?  40s?  That’s not very clear, but the supposition is that folks on the other side of the benchmark simply won’t get coverage.

The reasoning for this dire proposal is that Medicare is on a totally unsustainable financial path, and that the nation simply does not have the resources to support the cost.  Although most of us pay Medicare taxes throughout our working lives, we’re told that what we pay is a far cry from the actual cost.  One study suggested that the average wage earner will contribute about $70,000 in Medicare taxes during his/her working lifetime, but the average cost of delivering health care to people between their 65th birthday and the end of their lives is somewhere in the range of $405,000.  If that’s truly the case, then it’s easy to understand the concern.

Why this great disparity?  First, the cost of health care.  After a period of relatively modest overall increases, it appears that the cost of health care is now rising on a rapid track again.  Already, as a nation, we are looking at a point where we’ll spend 20 percent of our entire GDP just on health care.  That only leaves 80 percent for everything else.  The lifespan of Americans has increased significantly. Second, since Medicare came into being in the 1960’s.  It’s true that a very large share of health care is delivered to folks in their final years, and while it’s true that this no doubt plays a major role in extending lives, the point is that this is not financially feasible as more and more baby boomers hit the system.  In fact, baby boomers are turning 65 at the rate of more than 10,000 a day, and the overwhelming majority of them will sign up for Medicare.

Is it reasonable to conclude, then, that in the future, we’ll see less care available for citizens of all ages?  I’d say the answer is “yes”.  Whether we’re looking at rationed care, fewer procedures, waiting periods, and so on, it’s clear that change will come.  All of those processes (rationed care, etc.) are how other developed countries contend with their costs of health care, and in doing so, maintain an overall ratio of cost-to-GDP at far lower levels than the United States.

Most Medicare recipients love their coverage.  Surveys suggest that Medicare enjoys a far higher satisfaction level than private or employer-provided health insurance.  Only time, and the political climate, will determine what actually happens down the road.

Regardless of that, however, there is one thing that is becomingly increasingly clear and far more important in the overall scheme of things:  wellness and healthier lifestyles.  Obviously, the more we as individuals are willing to take control of our own health and wellness, the less care we’ll need from the health care industry, and the less cost we (and the system) will incur.

If there is anyone out there who would prefer to be sick and infirm in their later years, I’d love to hear your reasoning.  Most of us would love to be active and relatively healthy in our “golden years”.  But for that to happen, we simply MUST become more health-conscious.

This past week, the Mississippi Business Journal partnered with the Mississippi Business Group on Health and the Mississippi State Department of Health in the first annual “Mississippi Healthiest Workplaces” event, recognizing companies and agencies that are making a real effort to provide and support workplace wellness programs for their employees.  Some have had tremendous success with their programs, and can point to saving lives, improving the quality of life, and incidentally, improving the productivity and motivation levels of their employees.

We were pleased to be able to recognize people who are working hard to make a positive difference in the lives of Mississippians, and we hope that many more companies and institutions will take note of the importance of encouraging their employees to live healthier lifestyles.

For in the final analysis, it’s really hard to overstate the importance of this mission.  Whatever happens with Medicare and the whole health care industry, one thing is crystal clear:  we all need to take control of our own health and well-being, to whatever extent possible.

» Contact Mississippi Business Journal publisher Alan Turner at alan.turner@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1021.

About Alan Turner

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