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Politicians Should Learn From Health Benefits Managers

Barely a week after Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick said he wants state controls on the price of health insurance, President Obama apparently wants to do the same at the federal level.  Both men must believe it’s good politics, because there are about 4,000 years of evidence that it’s not good policy.

But the trouble for reformers has never really been about policy.  It’s been about a fundamental misunderstanding of how people view health care and the very bad things that happen when you give people the impression you’re going to mess with what they have.

In this sense, the reform bills are like perpetual anxiety machines.  Contraptions that continually produce more public anxiety than they consume.

But why is this?

Well one of the surest ways to create anxiety in someone is to make them feel uncertain about something important to them.  It’s one reason why companies suffer from problems with morale in tough economic times.  If a company doesn’t level with its employees about what’s happening, smart employees start to assume it must be because the news is bad.  Otherwise, why wouldn’t the management come out and explain that everything is ok?

So what are big companies telling their employees about the health reform bills?

I spend a lot of time talking with health benefits executives.  These are people in charge of communicating with employees about everything from the economy to the future of their companies to health benefits.  Most of the people are very smart, pragmatic businesspeople, with lots of experience in health benefits.  Yet they don’t really understand what the bills is Congress are meant to do.  They can only be honest with their employees about what health care reform might mean to them: “we’re going to wait and see” is what I hear from most of them.  What else could they say?

Now, think about what that means to an employee who is listening to all the political rhetoric and wants to know from his employer what the real deal is.  Will I get to keep my doctor?  Will my wife’s treatment be interrupted?  Will I still get to take the medication I want to?  Can I still take my kid to see the specialist at the teaching hospital?  “We’re going to wait and see” means “I don’t know, maybe.”  And that makes people very anxious.

How anxious?  Anxious enough for Massachusetts voters to elect a Republican Senator.

That’s pretty anxious.

So as politicians in Washington sit down again for a surprising new effort at reform, they ought to listen to the voices of people who deal with health care benefits for a living.  If they don’t understand reform, then it’s the politicians that should be the ones feeling anxious.

*This blog post was originally published at See First Blog*

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