Valley experts say employers can help promote lifestyle

By Larry Avila. Originally printed in the Appleton Post Crescent, September 11, 2008

APPLETON - Coercing employees to change their lifestyles could be a pill that cures health care cost woes.

Ask Mary Felton, vice president of human resources for Neenah-based Tidi Products, a health care products company.

Part of her job is finding cost-effective health insurance for the company's 225 workers and this year, her efforts to get employees to kick bad habits will pay off.

Tidi Products is expected to see significant savings in insurance costs thanks in part to commitments from workers adopting healthier lifestyles.

"We're making employees more accountable for their lifestyle choices," said Felton, who was among five presenters Wednesday at the Value Driven Health Care Forum presented by the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce & Industry.

The program was organized to showcase successful efforts of providers and businesses to reduce health care costs.

The company replaced about 70 percent of vending machine food with healthier choices and keeps fruit baskets for employees in its building.

Tidi also has a health coach and nurse practitioner on site to work with staff, Felton said. For every dollar spent on the health team, the company estimates it gets a $1.84 return.

Jay Fulkerson, regional market leader for UnitedHealthcare, which provides health insurance for about 1 million people in Wisconsin, said businesses should consider taking health risk assessments.

"Companies do need to be part of the solution," he said. "Health providers can't get lean enough. We can't do enough to educate on the benefits of wellness, but we do have to get people healthier."

Dr. John Toussaint, president and chief executive officer of the ThedaCare Center for Healthcare Value, a medical provider thinktank, said providers should help themselves reduce health care costs.

Before his current position, Toussaint was at ThedaCare, operator of Appleton Medical Center and Theda Clark Medical Center in Neenah, implementing lean manufacturing or efficiency principals into its patient care.

By streamlining - and working to continuously improve - operations, ThedaCare has saved $27 million the past three years, Toussaint said.

"We've seen a 5 percent improvement in productivity," he said. For certain cases, he said length of stay at the hospital has been reduced by 20 percent, costing patients and insurance companies less.

Right now, though, Toussaint said the health systems aren't set up to reward providers for cutting costs. In fact, the opposite is true.

"Our reward for providing better quality at a lower cost is $2,000 less per case from Medicare," he said.

If nothing changes, health costs only will get higher, said Dan Neufelder, president and CEO of Menasha-based Affinity, which operates St. Elizabeth Hospital in Appleton.

He said in 2006, the nation's health care costs represented about 16 percent of the country's total gross domestic product and by 2035, it would reach 31 percent.

Neufelder said if individuals were forced to cover more of their health costs, they would become better health careconsumers.

"It does create wiser choices," he said.

State Rep. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, chairman of the Assembly Committee on Health and Health Care reform, was supportive of private industry addressing rising health care costs but also said government should be an active player.

"Solutions that come from the private sector is the best situation," she said. "Government can help by getting out of the way."

Larry Avila: 920-993-1000, ext. 292, or