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Innovating Toward Health Care Reform, the Whole Foods Way

With the health-care debate bogged down in mindless town hall confrontations and the President reassuring us his plan for health care reform will work—just as soon as he creates it—where can Americans turn for innovative ideas in health care? Having organically grown his business from a failing granola shop in Austin into a nationwide phenomenon, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey knows a thing or two about running a solvent business while taking care of his people. And when it comes to health-care reform, Mackey says, the President and Congress are moving in the wrong direction.

"While we clearly need health-care reform, the last thing our country needs is a massive new health-care entitlement that will create hundreds of billions of dollars of new unfunded deficits and move us much closer to a government takeover of our health-care system," Mackey wrote in this morning's Wall Street Journal. "Instead, we should be trying to achieve reforms by moving in the opposite direction—toward less government control and more individual empowerment."

So how would President Mackey empower the people? For one, he writes, make it easier to create high-deductible insurance plans and health savings accounts. At Whole Foods, the company pays 100% of premiums for all employees working 30 hours per week or more (89% of them). Employees also receive additional dollars to be spent on their own health, up to $1,800 per year, in a Personal Wellness Account that rolls over each year if unused. But the annual deductible for the plan is high—about $2,500 dollars—creating an incentive for employees to spend their health dollars wisely. The plan's costs are low, the employees are satisfied, the care is excellent, and the waste is minimal.

Institutional inefficiencies also plague the current system. Employer benefits are tax-deductible, while individually owned plans are not, an incongruity that makes owning one's own plan far more daunting. State laws that prevent insurance companies from competing across state lines make most insurance non-portable. Government regulations mandating what insurance policies must cover take choice away from the individual and drive costs through the roof, while tort law allows for crippling lawsuits that drive the costs of health care even higher. Meanwhile, Medicare, which never offered much in the way of patient empowerment, hurtles toward insolvency.

By rectifying wasteful government practices that drive the costs of care up while simultaneously easing the creation of high-deductible health plans and health savings accounts, the market can find a middle that offers good care at a rate that won't hamstring the nation with insurmountable deficits. How does Mackey know this will work? He's asked the people. "At Whole Foods we allow our team members to vote on what benefits they most want the company to fund," Mackey writes. "Our Canadian and British employees express their benefit preferences very clearly—they want supplemental health-care dollars that they can control and spend themselves without permission from their governments."

Asking the people; now there's an innovative idea.

[via Wall Street Journal]