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Helping Hand

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Other than health insurers themselves, nobody's more aware of the tricks of their trade than hospitals. Barry Arbuckle saw that expertise as an opportunity to help large employers manage one of their fastest-growing cost drivers-employee healthcare.Arbuckle, president and chief executive officer of MemorialCare Medical Centers, a six-hospital system based in Long Beach, Calif., realized that hospitals can offer employers-especially smaller ones that don't self-insure-strategies to help employers cut costs without cutting benefits. "'We don't know what we don't know,'" Arbuckle says employers told him. "They've got their own history, but in terms of cost, utilization and the total expense of their outlay each month and quarter, they didn't know where they compared to others and where they had opportunities to save."So Arbuckle began making the system's experts on health insurance contracting available on a one-on-one basis to consult with employers on strategies to cut costs without reducing benefits. The idea came out of one of MemorialCare's regular "president's partnership" meetings with local employers. The meetings are designed to allow local employers to talk with their dominant provider's chief executive to discuss ways the hospital can help improve their employees' health-and ultimately allow them to keep offering health insurance to their employees at a time of double-digit healthcare cost inflation. "As a hospital, we have people who are experts in these things, so it's easy for us to lend some assistance to a local employer," Arbuckle says. Because MemorialCare is self-insured, it keeps track of utilization data and can show employers how to track similar information and use that data at contract negotiation time. Though the one-on-one sessions are not a formal program, MemorialCare's individual hospital CEOs encourage people from their finance, decision-support or government relations staffs to visit with local employers' benefits managers to review the cost structures and offer pointers about where they can save and still get high-quality healthcare, Arbuckle says.There's no charge for the consultations, which Arbuckle says can also help improve MemorialCare's relations with employers in less tangible ways. The consultations help employers understand that the hospital isn't always the bad guy and isn't necessarily to blame for drastic rate increases each year-a message they're not likely to hear from health insurer representatives. "They get an understanding of how a hospital works and why services cost what they do and how they can try to reduce them," he says. -Philip Betbeze