Health Care Costs and Exercise

Hey, remember last summer when the only thing we had to worry about was gasoline at four dollars a gallon? Ah, the good old days, before the stock market crash, the Bush-clueless recession, GM going belly up and so on. Well, looks like gasoline price gouging is inching its way back on the list of things to fret about this summer. And while we are at it, let’s add health care — and health care costs. That’s going to be the debate that sucks the air out of Congress and the administration this summer and most likely well thereafter.

Clearly, we need a new — and with luck realistic — approach to health care in this country. For many, the system is broken, if it exists at all. Yet for others, like me, the “health care system” ain’t that bad. Let’s be honest. I’m taking advantage of essentially fully paid for physical therapy for a weekend warrior running injury while a teenage student of my son in Colorado couldn’t get treated a few weeks ago for a broken hand. No family money; no free community-based services.

So within those two extremes we’ll have to figure out what works — and who pays. More than a decade ago, when I was at Goodrich, I shuffled off to DC to work with the Business Roundtable as part of a communications group opposing Hillary’s health care debacle plan. We came up with the tag line, “If you think health care is expensive now wait until it’s free.”

Some truth to that. Here’s a story from USA Today this morning that provides some insight for how difficult it will be to make significant health care changes — given the various and substantial conflicting interests and interest groups involved: “Budget chief sees ‘hard slog’ on health.”

And beyond my volunteer tour of duty with the Business Roundtable, I spent many years at Goodrich trying to communicate changes in health care plans — with corresponding higher costs and complexity — to employees and to external audiences. It is a difficult subject to inform people about. It affects people financially and in many cases emotionally. It tends to be complex, altering in some cases the patient/doctor relationships and in almost all cases subjecting people to a lexicon of obscure terms: PPOs, deductible, copayments, premiums and on and on. So whatever emerges from Congress is going to require a tremendous amount of communication and education.

I also consider wellness as a critical, yet often overlooked, aspect of this entire debate. Many health care plans during the past decade or two have been reshaped with the intent of keeping people well — rather than treating them when they are sick or injured. That makes sense to me and many companies took this approach to containing or reducing costs through health care plan changes that encouraged wellness — and that encouraged exercise.

But now, again according to an article in USA Today (“Cost-conscious companies re-evaluate wellness programs“), that trend may be reversing just at a time when big changes are in store for providers and patients.

Companies, desperate to slice fat from their budgets during this recession, increasingly are targeting workplace wellness programs. Smoking cessation and weight-loss programs are among those being considered for the chopping block, says Laurel Pickering, executive director of the New York Business Group on Health, a coalition representing employers on health benefit issues.

“When (companies) are looking for something to cut, and the CFO comes to the HR people and says, ‘Why should we keep this program?’ it’s difficult for the HR person to say, ‘It’s important,’ ” Pickering says.

Too bad. It is important. And let’s hope that wellness emerges as a key component of any national approach to health care — regardless of what’s called and who pays for it.

And an update: I still can’t run without pain in my left leg and foot. Let’s hope my health care coverage continues to pay for therapy. Woot.

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