Valley Health Alliance on health care costs moves forward |

Valley Health Alliance on health care costs moves forward

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times

With at least seven meetings under its belt since forming in the spring of 2012, the Valley Health Alliance is making progress in its quest to find ways to better manage the rising cost of health insurance and should have a solid model in place sometime next year, Aspen Valley Hospital interim CEO John Sarpa said Thursday.

The alliance consists of the Aspen area’s five largest employers ­— Pitkin County government, city of Aspen government, the Aspen School District, Aspen Skiing Co. and the hospital — which collectively represent about 4,200 workers. Members will gather today for a 7:30 a.m. meeting in the hospital boardroom. A representative of the Mayo Clinic is expected to join the discussion.

At Tuesday morning’s meeting of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association board, Sarpa told fellow board members it may seem that the pilot program is moving at a molasses-like pace. In an interview on Thursday, he clarified that remark.

“What I said was, ‘It appears to be like molasses’ and that’s because we’ve been meeting for more than a year,” he said. “But it does take a lot of discussion to talk about, OK, what are you doing, how are you doing it, why are you doing it, just for each of the five different approaches to health care, because each employer has a different health plan. So we have to understand what each is doing currently, and next, what are the areas where they would like to be doing better.”

If employers can’t figure out how to lower costs, Sarpa said, “they’re going to pay less and less (into employee) insurance. It’s going to cost the individual more and more, and we know that’s not a sustainable thing.”

Sarpa serves as vice chairman of the nonprofit alliance. Its mission: to create a healthier work force, which in turn will lead to lower health care costs.

By combining resources, the employers hope to create a new type of health care package that they all can share, he said. But such a huge undertaking comes with a degree of financial risk, Sarpa said — more on the front end than the back end, he expects.

“Health care is changing so quickly and all the old models are clearly not working,” he said. “Good health care is extremely expensive. A lot of studies have shown that 35 to 40 percent of all health care costs are wasted — in other words, they don’t really have a beneficial impact. In any other endeavor, business or otherwise, if 35 or 40 percent of your costs do you no good, you’re out of business.

“By working together, we think we can create a better model, and we can create healthier employees and we can lower our costs,” Sarpa continued. “So the risk is having the faith that working together we can do something that we could not do on our own. That will be a financial risk, as it will cost money, it might be a time risk, it will take some time to figure out if it’s working or not. But it certainly won’t be a risk to the employees.”

The initiative seeks to be proactive, focusing on preventative measures, lifestyle changes and the elimination of high-risk behaviors, all of which lead to overall wellness. That way, the workers won’t need to seek medical attention at doctors’ offices and hospitals nearly as often, Sarpa said. Special nurses might be hired to check in with employees of the five entities as a way of “catching things early,” he said.

Though there are employer-based health care models around the United States that may be comparable to what the Valley Health Alliance is trying to achieve, Sarpa said the Aspen model stands to be the first of its kind in the region.