Private sector a leader in wellness and disease prevention

In the mid-1980s, I had an opportunity to spend several hours with the director of medical services and his team of a major, well-known Canadian corporation. What quickly became apparent is “medical services” was a misnomer. Yes, they dealt with minor injuries and triaged major ones, but it was a minor part of their work.

Their real focus was the health of the employees, and their approach was innovative. For example, reviewing absenteeism the Monday after payday to see if there were behaviors at play such as possible substance abuse.

If a red flag popped up, the medical services team, which was mostly nurses, would follow up with the employee to determine the actual situation and if the company’s programs and services could be helpful. The approach was supportive – for the employee and for her or his family – and built around wellness and disease prevention.

Today that pioneering effort has become a staple of the human resource [HR] philosophies of many employers. Yes, there are economic incentives and benefits for the employer. More importantly, however, is the reward from simply doing to the right thing!

No wonder, therefore, that employee assistance programs [EAPs] have become a staple of privately funded and privately delivered health care for which unions bargain to have available for their members. Non-unionized employers also offer EAPs.

Other top-of-the-list health care benefits for both unionized and non-unionized employees include financial assistance in purchasing prescription drugs, dental plans, and services from health care provides such as chiropractors, psychologists and physiotherapists. All these are privately funded and privately delivered.

A more recent development has been the emergence of clinics whose focus is on wellness and disease prevention, and whose clients pay an annual fee. The clinics also have physicians on staff who bill Alberta Health for medical services covered by Medicare.

Employers support these clinics because of the alignment with employee wellness and disease prevention and the synergy with employee assistance programs.

These types of privately funded and privately delivered health-care services make up part of the 30 cents of every $1 that Canadians personally spend on health care every year. Significantly, provincial governments [Liberal, NDP, PC], which are responsible for Medicare, have shied away from moving into these areas.

And, it’s no wonder! They can’t even meet the promise of Medicare today: timely access to quality, publicly funded health care. Spending on Medicare in Alberta is now 50 cents of every taxpayer $1 and, at its current pace of inflation, this will torpedo Alberta’s budget by 70 cents of every $1 in just three more decades.


– Ronald Kustra

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