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Role of Government in Healthcare – Has a ‘Tipping Point’ Been Reached?

Has a ‘Tipping Point’ Been Reached on the Role of Government in Healthcare?With great interest, I read a newly-released report by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) and the Purchaser Business Group on Health (PBGH) on how corporate executives view the role of government when controlling health costs. Let me just say, the findings are not a flattering compliment to the status quo.

As we have found in Iowa and all over the country, healthcare costs continue to climb, year after year. In the past, employers have relied on private insurers and the quasi ‘market system’ to stem the tide of unaffordable healthcare costs, eschewing government regulations that would likely control how much providers are paid. As we know through Medicare and Medicaid, the government is able to reimburse providers considerably less than private payers.

This new survey of over 300 large private employers with at least 5,000 employees was important for yet another reason. The surveyed respondents were corporate leaders in key positions, such as CEOs, CFOs, COOs – individuals who have powerful decision-making roles within their organizations. They are prone to influence the trajectory of their organizations in the future. Equally impressive is the nice mix of industries represented: Agriculture, Construction, Financial Services, Manufacturing, Mining, Retail Trade, Services, Telecommunication, and Transportation & Distribution.

Key Findings

The overall takeaway is that a large share of corporate leaders are likely to SUPPORT government efforts to control health spending. Only a small share of respondents would oppose government regulations. 

As in the past, corporate leaders indicated they will continue to implement value-based payments, shift more costs to employees through plan designs and payroll-deductions – and find other ways to control their health costs – including direct-contracting relationships with health providers. But many leaders acknowledge that these measures have only been marginally successful, and despite conventional wisdom, large employers have little market clout to control their own costs.

This survey, therefore, sheds light on a new awakening that large employers may now have:

  • Bigger Role By Government – 87 percent of surveyed corporate officers believe the cost of health benefits will become unsustainable over the next 5 to 10 years. In fact, 85 percent indicate that the government needs to take on a bigger role in controlling costs and providing coverage.
  • Government Action on Hospital Prices – 78 percent of leaders expressed some level of support for government action on hospital prices, particularly in areas that have limited hospital competition. Of huge importance, less than five percent opposed these regulations.
  • Limiting Drug Prices – Surveyed leaders are equally supportive of having government limits on drug prices.
  • Public Insurance Option – About two-thirds (65 percent) of corporate leaders indicated having some level of support for a public insurance option for their employees. Additionally, a large majority support lowering the age for Medicare eligibility.

According to the surveyed executives, some advantages to having a greater governmental role in coverage and costs are:

  1. Employers are relieved of the responsibility and the costs of managing health benefits (61 percent).
  2. May enable the government to hold down costs (61 percent).
  3. May be able to increase consumer choices by offering public plans (e.g., public option or Medicare buy-in) to compete with private plans (47 percent).
  4. Might reduce administrative costs (29 percent).

Disadvantages include:

  1. Government doesn’t have a great track record of running big programs like this effectively (43 percent).
  2. Since the health care industry contributes so much money to political campaigns, lawmakers are never going to take steps to reduce costs (41 percent).
  3. Employers might not have the ability to tailor health benefits to their employee needs (30 percent).

Employers are in the Healthcare Business

Warren Buffett once said that “General Motors is a health and benefits company with an auto company attached.” In fact, GM spends more on healthcare than steel to make cars. Starbucks, as another example, spends more on healthcare than coffee beans. For most employers, after payroll, healthcare is the second largest expense. Whether employers like it or not, this puts employers smack in the center of the healthcare business.

It remains to be seen whether corporate leaders will put lobbying and advocacy energy into healthcare legislation that pushes for more government regulations on healthcare pricing. But if this latest survey is an indication of a new tipping point on the horizon, this could be a catalyst for real change. Of course, health providers and insurers will lobby hard to keep this from happening.

Executives of large organizations have historically been vocal on healthcare costs, but primarily resistant to increased government regulation. If employers no longer wish to be in the healthcare business, or at least, not quite like they have been in the past and present, their formidable voice for larger government involvement may become too loud for Congress to ignore.

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