Boeing launches major health care overhaul

For many, health care is a headache, even when you’re covered.

Costs rise yearly, sometimes by double-digit percentages. Consumers can face long waits to make appointments, then sometimes are referred to another organization. They must explain, again, their health problem.

The Boeing Co. thinks it has a plan to change all that. The company has signed an agreement with two local medical groups to simplify treatment: UW Medicine and the combined Providence-Swedish health-care organization.

Some 27,000 Boeing employees in metro Puget Sound, most of whom are nonunion, and 3,000 retirees are being offered a new health plan with a lofty promise: better health care at lower costs for consumers.

“Right up front, the plan is more affordable for Boeing employees and their families,” said Dr. Paul G. Ramsey, chief executive of UW Medicine. “And even within the first year, we believe it will improve a patient’s experience and improve access.”

Boeing is the first major employer in the Northwest and one of just a few companies nationally to launch what seems to be a major overhaul in the way health care is delivered. It could be a model for the rest of the country, said Preston Simmons, chief executive of Providence Regional Medical Center Everett.

The move is getting national attention from employers and health-care organizations. They are interested in how well it will work — and how many will sign up. Employees have to decide whether they’ll try the new plan or stick with their current one by Wednesday, when enrollment ends.

Families who opt for the new health plan can expect to save more than $1,000 a year on health-care coverage, said Jeff White, Boeing’s director of health care benefits strategy. Single employees are expected to save about $500.

There are other incentives, too. Boeing will contribute more money into health savings accounts, money that can be used for medical expenses — $800 for families and $400 for single employees.

There are free primary care visits and free generic prescription drugs.

The health-care organizations that contract with Boeing will be monitored as to how long it takes for a call to a medical office to be answered, how long it takes to make an appointment, how quickly a patient can get an appointment with a specialist and how effective the care is, Ramsey said.

The goals are to keep patients healthier by heading off problems or by closely monitoring them rather than waiting until they become more serious and costly; to reduce hospital re-admissions; and to reduce trips to the emergency room with problems that could be taken care of through more routine urgent care.

As with any health care network, patients generally will pay more if they get medical care outside the UW Medicine or Providence-Swedish networks. Both organizations, however, have agreements with other medical groups, such as hospitals, clinics and specialists.

“We wanted to have a one-stop shop for employees to cover the full gamut of care, from primary care to specialists, in-patient and outpatient,” White said.

Employees who want to enroll in the new plan have to choose one of the networks — either Providence-Swedish or UW Medicine.

The plan will pay about 90 percent of costs incurred in-network and about 60 percent out-of-network, White said. There are provisions for getting emergency medical care if people can’t get to a network clinic or hospital.

Boeing has contracted directly with the two health care networks rather than engage an insurance company. It’s a first for the company. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois will continue to administer the processing of health care expenses or claims for both networks.

The new health-care program borrows some philosophy from companies that have redesigned how business is conducted, Simmons said. “You think about how Amazon redesigned how people do retail shopping and Microsoft is redefining how we do business,” he said.

Health care, though, “has been the same way for a long, long time,” Simmons said. “Think about how people access health care.” People call for an office visit and “it takes you forever to get it.”

Providence sought a former Amazon senior executive to help adapt technology for patients to interact with clinics, Simmons said. For example, patients will be able to use a smartphone app to get answers to questions, or they can set up Internet teleconferences with health-care providers.

In the past, employers have tried to cut rising health-care costs through steps such as increasing co-pays and deductibles, White said. The company saw the health care plans being offered through UW Medicine and Providence-Swedish as a way to control costs without shifting it to employees, he said.

Intel’s site in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, began a similar health care program in 2013, and it caught Boeing’s notice. The change was spurred in part by projections that health-care costs for the company, with 48,000 employees and their 79,000 dependents, could hit $1 billion by 2012. Intel is now making the program available to employees at its Hillsboro, Oregon, campus.

Edmonds Family Medicine is one of the bevy of clinics that have joined the Providence-Swedish network. Teams of health-care workers will be brought together to tackle patient problems, said Marcy Shimada, the clinic’s chief executive.

The clinic has hired a dietitian to help patients battling weight and dietary issues. Psychiatric nurse practitioners have joined the staff to help people with depression and anxiety.

The new electronic tools and approaches to monitor the problems and progress of patients with multiple health problems are examples of how to provide health care more cheaply, she said.

But the health-care organizations that will treat Boeing employees face a challenge. “How do we work on improving their health?” Shimada said. “Frankly, it’s a tall order.”

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486;

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