retail news in context, analysis with attitude

There was a long piece in the Washington Post the other day on the subject of health care, and it started out this way:

“It's a seductively simple solution to rising health-care costs. Require workers to pay higher premiums if they flunk tests for measures such as weight, blood pressure and cholesterol. Then, bingo: You not only get a fitter workforce, you slash medical expenses.

“Politicians of both parties have embraced that idea and expanded upon it in the Senate reform bill, inspired largely by the claims of Steven A. Burd, Safeway's chief executive. Burd says he has set an example for employers nationwide by rewarding employees for healthy behavior.”

However, the Post suggests that the truth is a little more complicated:

“In a legislative debate filled with misconceptions, few rival the myth about Safeway, which has become the poster company for a provision that big employers and insurers covet. The supermarket chain's story shows how the untested claims of interest groups can take on a life of their own and shape national policy.

As the House and Senate work to meld their bills, the Senate's ‘Safeway Amendment,’ which would more than double the potential rewards and penalties tied to wellness tests, has become a point of contention.

“Business groups have pushed for the increase, arguing that financial incentives encourage workers to take responsibility for their health. Opponents such as the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society say the provision would undo a central element of reform -- the promise that people's insurance premiums would no longer be influenced by their health status.

“Rewarding or penalizing people based on wellness tests may save money over the long run, but Safeway hasn't proved it. In the meantime, based on 2009 data, if the Safeway Amendment becomes law, American families with average health benefits could have $6,688 a year riding on blood tests and weigh-ins.”

At issue is Safeway’s contention that its focus on personal responsibility has essentially “flatlined” its health care costs since 2005...a statement that apparently is inaccurate since its actual costs since 2005 have gone up. However, the company maintains that it defines “flatlining” as keeping a lid on per-capita costs, which are pretty much the same as five years ago.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that Safeway does not divulge how health care costs for employees engaged in its voluntary Healthy Measures program - which lowers premiums in accordance with healthy behavior - compare to costs for those who are not part of the program.
KC's View:
It seems to me that in a lot of ways, five years is just the blink of an eye when it comes to reining in health care costs, especially when you consider the number of years during which health care costs have been rising and unhealthy behaviors have been increasing.

If, in fact, Safeway’s employees are getting healthier and health care costs are going up, that may speak volumes about how the economics of health care dysfunctional. (It also may reflect the fact that, as the points out, that greater vigilance about one’s own health may actually lead to people discovering conditions and maladies that they may not have known about before. And treating those issues costs money. It also keeps people alive. Where I come from, that’s a good thing.)

In addition to hopefully saving money down the line, encouraging people to live longer and healthier lives is, in my view, a good thing all by itself. If health care costs go down in the long term, that also is good. But they are not necessarily the same thing.

The funny thing is that, depending on how the election in Massachusetts goes today, the whole debate about health care may be for nothing. And the Safeway amendment may end up just being a footnote in history.