Operators See Need to Take Action on Health Care

LAS VEGAS The business community must take a more proactive role in reducing health care costs, a panel of industry executives told the annual convention of the National Grocers Association here last week. It was the second time in as many weeks that industry leaders spoke out about the need for business to take a lead role in health care reform, following an address at Food Marketing Institute's

LAS VEGAS — The business community must take a more proactive role in reducing health care costs, a panel of industry executives told the annual convention of the National Grocers Association here last week.

It was the second time in as many weeks that industry leaders spoke out about the need for business to take a lead role in health care reform, following an address at Food Marketing Institute's Midwinter Executive Conference by Steve Burd, chairman, president and chief executive officer, Safeway.

Some members of NGA's panel said they have had some success in that area by implementing programs that are helping to keep their companies' costs in check.

“We're spending money to encourage healthier lifestyles among our employees, with incentives for them to take more ownership of their health, and as a result we're beginning to see a reduction in the increasing costs of health care,” said Chris Coborn, chairman, president and CEO of St. Cloud, Minn.-based Coborn's. “Until last year those costs were going up by 10% to 12% or more, but since we've taken a more proactive position, the increases have dropped to single digits and our employees are healthier, more productive on the job and calling in sick a lot less.”

Jay Campbell, president and CEO of Associated Grocers, Baton Rouge, La., said his company is attempting to reduce health care costs by encouraging employees to purchase their own health coverage.

“We're in the third year of a program where we allocate money for them to spend on doctors and medicine, just as they would shop for tires, and that money comes out of their own pockets. As a result, they're going to doctors or outpatient clinics when they feel sick rather than hospital emergency rooms, and they are becoming better shoppers.

“We've seen our net costs go down in the process, with no increases in our premium last year.”

According to Mark Batenic, president of the U.S. division of IGA, Chicago, health care is “a work in progress.”

“We as businesses have to learn to adapt to that,” he said. “Without question, this is a serious issue that we need to solve, because we don't want Washington, D.C., solving it for us. President Bush has already decided to leave it up to the states, and I believe it's up to us to put safeguards in place.”

Beyond encouraging healthier lifestyles among his employees, Coborn said his company is dedicated to helping customers make healthier buying choices. Toward that end, Coborn's has teamed up with local health care systems and schools in its operating area to address the issue of childhood obesity, “with the goal of reducing obesity by 10% in the markets we serve over the next few years,” he said. “We believe it's our responsibility to help families make healthier choices in what they feed their children.”

That kind of commitment to ensuring consumer health extends to keeping the planet healthy, the panel said.

“Independent operators must take ownership in this area and be stewards of the environment to the best of our ability,” Coborn said.

Coborn's is trying to reduce the use of plastic and paper bags by encouraging recycling, he said. “The amount of paper and plastic we generate is a real cost to us, and when we looked at how many items we were putting in each bag, we were astounded by the small number. So we're working on an initiative to increase the number of items packed in each bag to reduce our supply expense and to reduce the amount of material going into the waste stream,” he explained.