Health Quarterly: How businesses can improve health care

As a veteran of the business world, I certainly understand why many business owners are apprehensive about the health care system.

They have enough on their plates simply dealing with the day-to-day challenges of a slowly recovering economy, meeting payroll, making a profit and keeping the lights on.

Businesses already pay a bulk of health care expenses through their employees’ health insurance premiums — which, as we all know too well, continue to rise year after year. According to Colorado’s Insurance Commissioner, the average insurance premium rose by 22 percent between 2007 and 2009, with only a slight decrease in 2010.

According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, health expenditures ballooned to 17.6 percent of GDP in 2009 and are expected to rise to 19.3 percent by 2019 — a substantial (and perhaps unsustainable) figure.

The actual health of Coloradans also influences the economy. While Colorado has a relatively low obesity rate among adults, the state’s childhood obesity rate is growing at the fourth-highest pace in the country. A recent statistic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the health consequences related to obesity costs Coloradans an estimated $874 million a year.

No one likes the prospects of higher health insurance premiums, a growing share of GDP devoted to health care costs and an increasingly unhealthy workforce. Yet, by thinking of health care as an “investment” rather than an “expense,” Colorado business leaders can help ensure a healthier workforce in the short-term while doing their part to the health care system in the long-term. A few suggestions for meeting that challenge:

Make wellness part of your culture — Rather than absorbing double-digit premium hikes year after year, employers can work to improve the health of their workforce by offering special incentives and encouraging a healthier work environment. Empirical data shows that these kinds of programs reduce absenteeism while increasing productivity and job satisfaction. In 2004, Coors Brewing Co. realized a $6.15 return on investment for every dollar spent on its wellness program.

Support healthier communities — One of the best ways to fight obesity is to build healthier communities. That means ensuring safe, convenient pedestrian access to schools and attracting grocers and farmer’s markets where people have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Businesses can support these efforts by supporting programs in their communities that make a difference.

Get involved — Most local chambers of commerce in Colorado are engaged in health policy through advocacy and educational efforts. Also in Colorado, the Center for Improving Value in Health Care (CIVHC) is partnering with the business community, providers and health plans to develop new solutions to contain costs, improve quality and build a stronger, more efficient health care system.

Business leaders can learn more about their role in health care at the Colorado Health Foundation’s Colorado Health Symposium.

This year, the Symposium, scheduled July 27-29 in Keystone, set aside an entire day to examine the cost of health care on business and how businesses are leveraging provisions of the health care reform act. Though this year’s event is sold out, observers can keep up with the dialogue online and through social media at www.coloradohealth.org.

Anne Warhover is president and CEO of the Colorado Health Foundation.