A Healthy Attitude

There's more to cutting health-care costs than finding the lowest price

Patricia Halo would be an expert on small-business health benefits even if she hadn't written the book on it (Managing Health Benefits in Small and Mid-Sized Organizations, $35, Amacom Books). Halo has been running an 11-person consulting company in New City, N.Y., for more than two decades, and she makes a point of coughing up money for a health-maintenance organization that includes prescription-drug coverage because she thinks it's vital to a healthy business. But making health care affordable means more than just shopping for the cheapest plan, Halo tells frontier's Rick Green. Some edited excerpts:

Q: Is it harder for small companies to hold costs down?

A: That's true. I don't think they can possibly do it all themselves and do it well. Picking a good adviser is key. Often these things come down to personal relationships, but you need to measure the scope of their services. An agent may represent half a dozen companies, or only one. If an agent represents only one, guess which one he's going to try to sell you.

Q: How about putting the plan out for bids each year to get the lowest price?

A: It's not a good idea to do a plan review more than every two or three years. First, there are certain costs that are charged to you as a new account. Second, there's a loss of employee loyalty. The minute you start flipping health plans around, it sends out a message of less security. Employees start thinking, "Hey, is there something going on I don't know about? Why do they keep changing the health plan? I just got used to this doctor." It inconveniences employees and undermines what you're trying to accomplish: the understanding that you are safeguarding part of their financial security.

Q: So what can you do?

A: There's lots of good information about health resources within a community--toll-free numbers and local offices. Make that available. Encourage people to seek early medical care when they have a problem--a philosophy and a policy that says, if you're not feeling well, get an early diagnosis rather than waiting, which could cost more money to treat and cause longer absentee time and more turnover. Then look at programs that can be brought to the workplace through public sources. They may have mammography, cardiac screenings, diagnostic programs, and educational services you can arrange. Bringing a mobile unit to a workplace is good not just for the employee. It helps reduce the cost of your health plan, because eventually, if you have very adverse experiences, it's going to catch up with you in higher premiums--not to mention the lost work time.

Q: You've also suggested unusual actions, such as putting healthier foods in vending machines. Will that really make a difference?

A: I think it will, if employers encourage healthier snacking and lunch times, and urge employees to be less sedentary. I've seen the difference in health claims and overall attitude about being at work. This is the type of program that shows a payback.

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