Human Capital & Careers

Are These Benefits Hokum, or Helpful?

A &splt;i>Fortune&splt;/i> 500 CEO says coverage for alternative medicine is good for employees and the bottom line.
David McCannDecember 15, 2012

To stay healthy, people should eat fruits and vegetables, exercise regularly, drink alcohol only in moderation, and smoke not at all. And they definitely should avoid saturating their systems with mercury.

Back in 2004, Don Washkewicz, CEO of $13 billion manufacturer Parker Hannifin, had no idea that mercury poisoning might be causing his intestinal discomfort and low energy until he underwent a full medical screening. Although the American Dental Association and the medical community generally hold that silver dental fillings (which are about half mercury) pose no risk, there appeared to be no other source for his condition. Regardless of the cause, Washkewicz’s mercury score was high. So he underwent chelation therapy, which uses an injected enzyme to cleanse the body of toxic heavy metals like mercury and lead. Before long, he started to feel better.

Washkewicz could afford to undergo chelation and have his old fillings replaced with nonmetallic composite ones. That was a good thing, because back then neither procedure was covered under Parker Hannifin’s health plan. His next move was to check how many of the 35,000 employee fillings the plan had paid for the previous year were mercury-laden. The answer: 70%.

“I said, this is insane,” recalls Washkewicz. “We’re poisoning our work force, paying for it up front, then paying again later for the chronic conditions that result from being poisoned.” Parker Hannifin instituted a policy under which it covered less and less of the costs for silver fillings over the next few years. Today it pays nothing for silver, but 100% for composites.

What’s more, Washkewicz’s experience sparked a review of Parker Hannifin’s health benefits. The result has been a steady expansion of so-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) treatments and therapies covered under the plan, provided by a growing network of practitioners nationwide. (See “From Acupuncture to Thermography,” below.) Many of the practices are preventive in nature.

Untested and Unproven
Most CAM practices are rarely covered by health plans, because much of the medical community and the health-insurance industry considers them untested and unproven. Indeed, there are only perhaps 15 to 25 large companies that could be described as active on the CAM front, says Raymond Fabius, chief medical officer for Truven Health Analytics, which organizes and analyzes health data for about 200 of the Fortune 500 companies.

“Parker Hannifin is a big outlier, and in fact probably unique in its breadth of coverage,” says Ken Pelletier, a cardiologist who has been running the University of Arizona’s Corporate Health Improvement Program for 25 years. The program helps large companies (though not Parker Hannifin) design customized health and wellness initiatives, often using a variety of CAM methods. That doesn’t mean Pelletier offers a blanket approval of Parker Hannifin’s health strategy, though.

Referring to the company’s CAM coverage list, Pelletier says, “At least half of these are in the ‘caveat emptor’ category. Many have no evidence base whatsoever.” His assessment is backed up by Helen Darling, president of the National Business Group on Health, which represents more than 350 large-employer members on national health policy issues. “For most of these things, I’ve never heard of a company that covers them,” she says.

Not surprisingly, the health-insurance industry is also on the opposing side. “Typically what drives coverage is whether there is a scientific evidence base that tells us something is safe, effective, and in some cases more effective than an alternative,” says Susan Pisano, vice president of communications for lobbying organization America’s Health Insurance Plans. “And then an employer has to be willing to fund it.”

While Truven Health’s Fabius believes that many CAM practices have value, he points out that there is great pressure on companies to keep health-care premiums down. “Adding more things to the benefits package adds to the premium costs,” he says.

“We’re Doing the Right Thing”
But Washkewicz, who reads extensively about CAM and regularly meets with CAM practitioners around the world, is undeterred. “I’m 100% positive we’re doing the right thing,” he says. “Traditional medicine treats symptoms instead of getting to the underlying problem. If the problem is high blood pressure, the solution is not a blood-pressure drug. It’s finding out what’s causing the high blood pressure.”

Although Parker Hannifin’s program has been developing for eight years, the company has not publicly talked about it much. That’s changing, in large part because Washkewicz thinks CAM is the solution to America’s health-care problem. “If more and more companies were to do this, we’d have a healthier population and be able to spend money elsewhere,” he says.

Employee utilization of CAM at the company has grown from 27,000 services performed in fiscal 2009 to 46,000 in 2010, 78,000 in 2011, and 102,000 in 2012, according to Dan Serbin, executive vice president of human resources. Still, Parker Hannifin hasn’t been able to determine the cost impact of CAM on the company as a whole. Health care is generally viewed from a holistic standpoint, notes Serbin, and many operating units have not yet tried to differentiate between the effects of the CAM offerings and those of other, more-traditional health and wellness efforts.

The most proactive unit in tracking health-care cost movement has been Parker Hannifin’s plant in Richland, Michigan, where a high-performance wellness team was created to push health and wellness and measure the results. There, annual per-employee medical costs have dropped by more than half since 2007, from $6,500 then to $3,200 in fiscal 2012 (ended June 30), Serbin says, though it’s not clear how much of the savings is directly attributable to the CAM efforts.

It’s important to Washkewicz that the program be on at least a “level playing field” with traditional medicine. That is, the company generally pays for 80% of its employees’ health-care costs, whether for conventional or CAM approaches.

“It’s about choice,” says the CEO. “If you are comfortable with the drugs your doctor prescribes, you can keep going to him. But if you want to go with less invasive, more holistic, less toxic health care without being stuck on drugs the rest of your life, we’re offering a good place to start.”