Posted on July 29, 2009

Steve Burd's magic elixir


How Safeway Is Cutting Health-Care Costs: Market-based solutions can reduce the national health-care bill by 40%

By Steven A. Burd, CEO of Safeway Inc.
The Wall Street Journal
June 12, 2009

As with most employers, Safeway’s employees pay a portion of their own health care through premiums, co-pays and deductibles. The big difference between Safeway and most employers is that we have pronounced differences in premiums that reflect each covered member’s behaviors. Our plan utilizes a provision in the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act that permits employers to differentiate premiums based on behaviors. Currently we are focused on tobacco usage, healthy weight, blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Safeway’s Healthy Measures program is completely voluntary and currently covers 74% of the insured nonunion work force. Employees are tested for the four measures cited above and receive premium discounts off a “base level” premium for each test they pass. Data is collected by outside parties and not shared with company management. If they pass all four tests, annual premiums are reduced $780 for individuals and $1,560 for families.

During this four-year period, we have kept our per capita health-care costs flat (that includes both the employee and the employer portion), while most American companies’ costs have increased 38% over the same four years.

While comprehensive health-care reform needs to address a number of other key issues, we believe that personal responsibility and financial incentives are the path to a healthier America. By our calculation, if the nation had adopted our approach in 2005, the nation’s direct health-care bill would be $550 billion less than it is today.


Preventive health plan may prevent cost increases

By Victoria Colliver
San Francisco Chronicle
February 11, 2007

Safeway chief executive Steve Burd has turned into an evangelist of sorts, spreading the lower-cost, better-health gospel to other business executives around the country.

Starting in January 2006, Safeway began offering a new plan to its 30,000 nonunion employees.

The plan, administered by Cigna Corp., is the lowest-premium option for nonunion employees, but it comes with a high deductible. To encourage enrollment, Safeway offered the plan last year for 22 to 30 percent less than what employees were paying for Cigna’s preferred provider organization option.

The company said its program focuses more on rewards for good behavior than penalties for bad. For example, smokers who agreed to fill out the questionnaire and try to quit smoking saw no increase in their 2007 premiums.

Virtually all the savings generated in the program’s first year came from changing the plan design, Burd said. But even if the company manages to keep spending flat, Burd noted, Safeway will remain ahead of the trend.


Mr. Burd Goes to Washington

By Kimberley A. Strassel
The Wall Street Journal
June 19, 2009

Mr. Burd explains that the “cure for today’s ills is simply removing the obstacles to a free health-care market.”

The Safeway plan has two main parts that work in tandem. The first involves giving employees a financial stake in the system. Safeway demolished the traditional PPOs and HMOs that encourage consumers to be cavalier about costs. The company deposits $1,000 each year into a “health reimbursement account,” which workers can use to pay for care. The next $1,000 in expenses is the employee’s responsibility. After that, employees pay 20% of costs up to a $4,000 maximum.

The second part of Safeway’s plan… Safeway’s “Healthy Measures” program, which is voluntary. Employees are tested for smoking, weight, blood pressure and cholesterol. Every area they “pass” results in a reduction in their premium, of as much as $1,560 for a family, a year.

When I ask Mr. Burd what he hopes to accomplish here, he is blunt that one goal is to prevent a “public option” that would only “piggyback on the experience of Medicare.” It’s a “Trojan Horse” that will steer people to government and ultimately squeeze out innovative programs like his.

He’s also working to ensure that any health-care bill contains provisions that would replicate or encourage Safeway’s success. That includes changing current law so that he can offer even steeper premium discounts for good behavior.


Just Rewards? Healthy Workers Might Get Bigger Insurance Breaks

By Mary Agnes Carey
Kaiser Health News
July 28, 2009

The discounts are being pushed by Steve Burd, the chief executive officer of Safeway Inc., who has met with several lawmakers on Capitol Hill and says that rewarding healthy behavior has helped keep his firm’s health care costs flat while other companies’ have skyrocketed.

Health care overhaul legislation passed by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee would allow employers to increase those discounts to 30 percent and up to 50 percent if the secretaries of Labor, Health and Human Services and Treasury agree. A House proposal would allow employers to charge workers who participate in wellness programs 50 percent less than workers who don’t.

“If you give one person a discount, someone else is going to end up paying more,” said Paul Cotton, senior legislative representative, federal affairs, at AARP, one of more than 60 groups that’s fighting the provision. “So the people who aren’t able to change their behavior or participate in the program will end up paying more. Our fear is that premiums will become unaffordable for people who can’t change their behavior.”

By Safeway’s calculations, “if the nation had adopted our approach in 2005, the nation’s direct health-care bill would be $550 billion less than it is today,” Burd wrote in a June 12 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. Critics of Burd’s data have said (that) has not been independently verified. A Safeway spokeswoman acknowledged that there has been no independent analysis, but “we were able to see savings clearly and immediately the first year we implemented the program.”


By Don McCanne, MD

Safeway’s Steve Burd has been making the rounds in Washington and elsewhere claiming that his program would reduce our national health care bill by $550 billion, even though there is absolutely no verification of that.

So what is his program? It has two parts: 1) changing from traditional coverage to a high deductible plan with 20 percent coinsurance, and 2) premium reductions for better health.

Changing to consumer-directed high-deductible plans, with coinsurance replacing copays, reduces the amount that Safeway pays for its health benefit programs, but it does so by shifting more costs to the employees in out-of-pocket expenses, and by reducing the amount of health care received, no matter how beneficial. Since most health care spending is not subject to the negative impact of deductibles, the impact on our total national health spending would be negligible. So where is the $550 billion savings?

Reducing premiums for healthier employees automatically results in higher premiums for employees with health problems who are in the same risk pool. Hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, and a higher body mass index are problems that are much more complex than simple lifestyle choices. Health insurance is already unaffordable for the majority of us, and pushing premiums higher for those who have have greater health care needs is unsound policy, assuming that our goal is affordable health care for everyone.

Even if financial incentives were capable of reversing hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, and obesity, it would take many years - decades - to see a benefit in the form of lower national health care spending. Steve Burd’s claim that he has dramatically reduced costs in just a couple of years by shifting more out-of-pocket expenses to the less healthy employees is a crock!

Let’s say it like it is. When Steve Burd says that his program would save the nation $550 billion, he is lying. And he needs to be called on it.

His primary goal is to convince Congress that it needs to block the public option. The Senate Finance Committee decided this week that the reform bill will exclude the public option. Score one for Burd.

His other goal is to take care of his lower-cost healthy employees while punishing those with health care problems. Both the Senate HELP bill and the House Tri-Committee bill would shift even more of the premiums from the healthy to those with health problems than has Burd with his Safeway program. Score two for Burd!

It’s seems like a waste of time to even talk about Burd’s dishonest bull. But we have to, because Congress is converting his bull into our policy. At the same time, Congress is pushing aside the policies that would enable all of us to have affordable access to health care.

I only wish my anger were more contagious. The nation needs a massive epidemic of anger right now.