Employees Health Responsibility

September 26, 2003
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Public school districts surrounding Grand Rapids are immersed in the battle of this age: the debacle of employees striking over contract negotiations hung up by health care benefits. There are variations from district to district but the chief complaint is related to employee payment of health care cost deductibles — even as health care costs to employers have seen double-digit increases for well more than five years.

First, it must be said that especially in the case of government and school employees, it is supremely cavalier to make demands on taxpayers who likely do not have such benefits. Second, it is likely that the school employees, like many of their fellows working for private businesses, have not yet adjusted their spending on health care. It is no different than the perception the general public held about welfare recipients and the statistical evidence that as long as a service is “free,” the recipient is not going to change behavior to get off the public dole.

Grand Rapids Business Journal this week exhaustively reports on health benefits in Section B. The Campbell Group Vice President Kyle Hodges believes one answer to the continued rise in costs is to make employees more financially accountable for their health care needs. The business community has seen such advocacy by the leading medical centers in Grand Rapids, by the Alliance for Health, as well as a greater “reward” by insurers that encourage individuals to become more aware of how much money is saved in scheduling regular checkups rather than waiting for catastrophes. When doctors advise patients to eat healthy foods, diet and exercise, it is meant to reduce health risks and cost.

Learning about health care issues — and the cause and effect of cost increases — would well serve the teachers who are so adamant in retaining a free ride. Hodges’ outlook is proactive and offers employers sound advice, especially as business prepares for what has already been announced: another round of increases, and cost shifting.

Hodges suggests that employers who are forced to look at cutting back on health benefits should advise employees to use Flex Spending, a medical savings account or a plan under the Health Reimbursement Act. All three programs offer employees tax savings — and continued benefits.

Employers can offer incentives for healthy behavior and remind employees that it is far less costly to wait for a doctor’s office appointment than to rush to an emergency medical center, depending on the nature of the emergency. In regard to the latter, however, statistics show patients are more apt to show up at emergency centers with flu symptoms or sprains than life-threatening injuries.

We do not suggest that such action alone would stem the tide of health care increases; the causes are varied and many are related to an aging population. But one cannot suggest it is all the fault of government, pharmaceutical company profits or medical technology. The first step in controlling costs is for individuals to take responsibility for themselves. We hope this can be imparted to the educators of this community.    

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