The Stew BLOG

Leveraging the Power of the Corporate Community to Transform Health

Laura Landy, President & CEO | 03/10/2017

I recently read an article about employer health costs from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). When I got to the end, the web algorithm—which presumably tracks what readers of that article have also read—suggested another piece that I might like to read. The title was “How to Conduct a Layoff or Reduction in Force.”

Perhaps this juxtaposition isn’t all that surprising in today’s political and economic climate, but it still struck me as worth our further consideration. It got me wondering: how can we help corporate leaders feel more powerful to influence change, such that their thoughts about health costs are less associated with layoffs and more engaged in how they can take part in leading improvement? How can we better leverage American corporations’ know-how to positively influence our national conversations about the next version of Obamacare, the future of Medicare and Medicaid, and how to create jobs and strengthen the U.S. economy? Based on numerous conversations I’ve had with corporations across the country on these topics, I offer a few suggestions.

To start, we can acknowledge corporations’ major role in America’s health system and in the health of our economy, which gives them a huge incentive to apply their experience in figuring out new and better ways to use the billions of dollars that now go to health care. Corporations are responsible for 20% of total U.S. health spending (as compared to 29% by the federal government), and they employ more than 50% of the total population. SHRM reports that corporate health costs are running at almost $9,000 per employee, and the average cost of providing health care makes up 7.6% of a company’s annual operating budget. No doubt, corporations have every reason to apply their best thinking and experience as we determine how to use our country’s resources wisely. And, they’ve experienced other ways of doing things first hand! Unlike our government-sponsored health programs, many corporations function at a global level. They have learned, from their own daily business operations, how other nations’ policies have realized better health outcomes, at lower cost.

Second, we can consider how to better leverage corporations’ already strong investments in their communities’ health. A healthy, thriving community is one key consideration for corporations when they are choosing where to locate a plant or corporate office—and where to create jobs. To keep communities healthy, they leverage their negotiating power—both alone and together—to drive market dynamics (including insurance costs and coverage) and engage their employees and their families in efforts to increase well-being. Many community leaders who are trying to drive health system transformation fail to find ways to take advantage of this kind of power and potential.

Third, we can take lessons from innovative corporations that are already showing policymakers and other change agents how to lead with a value-driven orientation. Unilever’s ability to resist Kraft’s attempt at takeover highlights how corporations can show us how to navigate the hard work of transformation. With a focus on the challenge of climate change and the need for human development, Unilever created public value for its goal “to make sustainable living commonplace.”

The Unilever Sustainable Living Plan is the corporation’s blueprint for how they will grow the business. Their website states, “The plan sets stretching targets, including how we source raw materials and how consumers use our brands. The scale of our ambition means that we are finding new ways to partner with others in business, government and society. We want to move towards a world where everyone can live well and within the natural limits of the planet.” And as it turns out, being clear about this plan has been of major importance in preserving the ability to carry it forward. As Tim Worstall wrote in Forbes, “[Let’s] think about what the sustainability and responsibility arguments actually are. Which is that by concerning itself with those wider interests, rather than just concentrating upon making as much moolah for investors as possible, the company makes itself more valuable. . . That then means that [Kraft] cannot win this bid with Unilever, doesn’t it? Because by stripping out such activity, all that nice green and be nice stuff, they will be destroying value.”

A growing number of corporations are bringing this same value-driven orientation to the health of our people and communities. Recent conversations ReThink Health has had with leaders at Dow, GE, and Boeing have highlighted the seriousness with which corporations are approaching health as an issue, and as a responsibility.

GE’s HealthyCities Leadership Academy, for example, engages select communities from across the country in helping community and business leaders learn how to work together “to develop and support new models for approaching population health challenges and improve the health of working families living in their cities, towns and communities.” As Sue Siegel, CEO of GE Ventures, Licensing, & and Healthymagination stated, “GE has a strong commitment to improving population health. Previously, governments, foundations, and private organizations have united to develop and execute programs designed to improve the health of local communities. However, these partnerships have rarely included or relied on local businesses to achieve their goals. We believe that leveraging the strengths of businesses can enable communities to more effectively develop and implement community health initiatives.”

Siegel is right. Our health ecosystem needs the wisdom of corporations, both now and for the long term, alongside government, foundations, community organizations, hospitals, and others. Federal government leaders can’t create policy in a vacuum; and neither can state or community leaders. Transforming health starts with conveying an attitude that we have a lot to learn from one another’s knowledge and experiences. Only then will our best leaders believe they will be valued contributors and take action to create the best of times, for our future.