Benefits Expo Day 2: Waking up to Tough Talk on Health Care Reform

There’s nothing quite like kicking off a morning in a room with 500 other yawning people who haven’t had quite enough coffee listening to a panel discussion on health care reform.

Okay, so I say that with a bit of tongue in cheek, but so it goes on Day 2 of the 23rd annual Benefits Forum & Expo, sponsored by Employee Benefit News, that started Sunday here in Boca Raton, Florida.

That morning panel discussion — titled Health Care Reform: The Next Horizon for True Change — quickly got to the heart of the issue, and something that all four panelist were in total agreement on. In other words, what we call health care reform (or Obamacare) isn’t what you think it is. In the minds of the panelists, “it’s really insurance market reform, not health care reform.”

The panel, which included Dr. Ray Fabius, chief medical officer for Thompson Reuters, Dr. Artie Southam, executive vice president of health plan operations for Kaiser Permanente, VP for public policy Steve Wojcik from the National Business Group on Health, and Kay Curling, Senior HR VP at Salient Federal Solutions, gave their unvarnished views on health care reform. And, they weren’t pretty.

The (somewhat pessimistic) view on Obamacare

The panel’s view seemed to be that Obamacare is more about a huge, new government bureaucracy that isn’t really getting at the heart of the problem — the $700 billion per year that gets wasted in the system, or $1 out of every $3 that Americans spend on health care.

Artie Southam of Kaiser listed the impact and challenges of health care reform, and they’re pretty daunting:

  • Real time insurance reform and the the uninsured (that mostly goes into place by 2014);
  • A new federal regulatory framework;
  • A thousand “shalls” in the reform legislation;
  • Limited focus on health care cost and care delivery;
  • Real incentives for improvements in health information technology;
  • America’s ambivalence about cost containment;
  • Incredibly rapid implementation.

Southam said that America now has created, essentially, a “Minister of Health Care.” And the thousand “shalls” in the reform legislation, he noted, creates both ambiguity AND power for the Secretary of Health and Human Services or whoever else is named in the “shalls.” These “shalls” will eventually be turned into health care regulations by the federal government.

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Scary? Yes, it sounds like it, and Southam said that the bigger issue is that “the bill does very little to impact the challenges of American health care — cost, waste, and health care delivery.”

Plus, Steve Wojcik of the National Business Group on Health pointed out that not only are employers budgeting more for their 2011 health care costs in the wake of the passage of Obamacare, but employers are also going to be thinning benefits and raising what employees pay to help offset the expected increase. Even scarier yet is this — some 12 percent of employers said in a survey that they plan to reduce employment due to health care reform, primarily among smaller businesses.

Had enough? Well, if that wasn’t enough to wake up the morning crowd on Day 2 of the Benefits Expo, nothing is.

Some other highlights of the conference:

  • The conference vibe: luke warm, at best. I’ve been to the Benefits Expo a couple of times in the past, but not for two or three years, so I don’t have any recent comparison for how robust an event it was with 500-600 attendees, tops. That’s not a terrible number, but down from the 700-800 or so that were here the last time I attended. In addition, a number of exhibitors told me that the conference seemed “slow” and that they had a lot of time on their hands. Hard to know what to make of that.
  • Was Boca Raton the problem? Florida is made for conferences, and I’ve lost count of how many I have attended over the years in the Sunshine State. So, I’ve seen just about every type of hotel and conference facility there is and given that experience, the Boca Raton Resort ranks low on my list of places to hold a gathering. Now, it’s a wonderfully classic (okay, old) hotel and would really appeal to me if I were here on vacation, but it doesn’t work for a conference because everything is just too spread out. Any time you need to get on a hotel shuttle to get around the property, it’s too much. Say what you will about the Disney hotels in Orlando, but most of them are a much better option for a nice, tight, closely integrated annual gathering. Better luck next year when Benefits Expo is in Dallas.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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