Businesses holiday shopping for health care, not finding any bargains

By Marty Carpenter, Contributor | Posted - Dec 5th, 2012 @ 12:33pm

SALT LAKE CITY — We are now less than three weeks from Christmas so many of us are busy shopping for great deals on the perfect gifts. You may be spending more of your time combing through the ads in the paper, shopping online when you get a break at work and wracking your brain for the perfect idea for Aunt Linda.

The holidays can be stressful.

But this isn't going to be a column about the madness of the holidays or the importance of a strong retail season for our consumer driven economy.

Because you're not the only one shopping.

Chances are your employer is currently pouring over much less visually enticing papers. Businesses are shopping, but they are looking for a good deal on your health benefits for next year.

The ads you're looking at are filled with terms like "sale" and "50 percent off!"

I assure you; those terms are nowhere to be found in the estimates for health benefits where businesses face increases—some of "only" 10 percent, many around 20-30 percent, and some even double.

The significant increases have businesses wondering about the eventual full impact of the Affordable Care Act and searching for some immediate, concrete steps they can take to counter the skyrocketing cost of health care.

Last week, the Salt Lake Chamber introduced the Employer's Toolbox. It's a series of tools designed to help businesses offset some of the significant increases.

The Employer's Toolbox is for all employers regardless of size or level of health care expertise. It addresses 12 different topics that fall under four major categories: health and wellness, purchasing insurance, information and transparency, and consumer solutions. This simple and practical toolbox allows business executives to take steps to deal with annual double-digit increases in health care costs.

CEOs and human resource professionals are tearing their hair out as the cost of health care rises at an exponential rate.

–Rich McKeown

"CEOs and human resource professionals are tearing their hair out as the cost of health care rises at an exponential rate," said Rich McKeown, the chair of the Salt Lake Chamber Health Reform Task Force, and president and CEO of Leavitt Partners. "There are much larger, global issues that need to be dealt with in health care, but there are things employers can do and that's the focus of the Toolbox."

McKeown knows a thing or two about health policy. As Sec. Mike Leavitt's top aide at the Department of Health and Human Services, he has fought the high-level battles to control health care costs for years. In his role as president and CEO of Leavitt Partners, he has poured over the bids for health benefits for his employees. This year, he says, they were confronted with a 22 percent increase.

"Like all businesses, it erodes our ability to give raises appropriately to people who are deserving," he said. "We are finding that many businesses are in the same situation."

McKeown moved his team at Leavitt Partners to a defined contribution system, rather than the defined benefit. Essentially, they provide a certain amount of money to employees they can use to buy health insurance through Avenue H—the newly renamed Utah Health Exchange. The business gets cost certainty, and the employees can choose a plan that best fits their circumstances—all with the same tax benefits as a more traditional approach offers.

"Our employees found greater satisfaction and we were able to control our costs," said McKeown. "We had a six percent premium increase instead of 22 percent and I would venture to say each of our employees felt better served by the choices they were able to make on their own."

In addition to explaining the advantages of the defined contribution model, the Employer's Toolbox is designed for easy comprehension for the non-health care professional. It is designed to continue to add new ideas as more businesses work to counter their increasing costs.

"This is not a panacea," said McKeown. "This is an incremental step to provide information to employers as they consider new insurance coverage options."

It may not solve the entire health care issue, but the Employer's Toolbox provides some welcome relief for business leaders during a stressful shopping season.

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