SAS finds good health care pays off

Staff WriterOctober 5, 2009 

  • The issue: Fewer Americans have private insurance, while more are covered by government programs or are doing without insurance.

    Key statistic: The percentage of Americans covered by private health insurance has declined from about 79percent in 1980 to less than 67 percent last year, said the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

    The ideas: President Barack Obama proposes to provide universal coverage through a series of measures aimed at people not covered by private insurance or government plans such as Medicare and Medicaid. Obama says most businesses should be required to offer insurance or to help workers buy individual plans. The government would create exchanges where small businesses and consumers could comparison-shop among private plans and perhaps a not-for-profit government-run plan. The president's proposals are largely reflected in a Democratic-sponsored bill in the Senate Finance Committee. Republicans don't talk about universal coverage and say they oppose government-run health care. They say far more people can be insured through changes to the private market, such as allowing individuals and small businesses to join together to get health insurance at lower prices, as large businesses and labor unions do, and letting them buy insurance across state lines.

Editor's note: This fall, The N&O is talking to people about the nation's health-care system: what works, what doesn't and what should be done to fix it.

There is standard employer-sponsored health insurance -- and then there are SAS-provided benefits.

The Cary-based software company built an on-site health clinic, staffed with doctors and nurse practitioners. If you need to spend 45 minutes with your doctor, you may. There are massage and physical therapists available, as well as a day care center.

"You get spoiled," said Lauren Van Valkenburgh, whose husband, Scott, is a SAS employee. "You don't even wait in line."

This is the kind of insurance many people fantasize about. But even regular private insurance, the kind that involves driving across town to see the doctor and then waiting in the lobby with a roomful of sick strangers, is becoming rarer all the time. The percentage of Americans under 65 with private insurance has been dropping since 1980 -- from about 79 percent to 67 percent in 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

SAS has a simple reason for investing so much in the health of its employees, spokeswoman Allison Lane said: "It makes good business sense."

SAS found that the clinic saves each employee about nine hours a year, because it's not always necessary to leave the campus to see a doctor. The benefits help keep annual turnover to about 4 percent, compared to the industry average of more than 20 percent, Lane said, and they help recruit new employees as well.

In 2008, the center counted more than 40,000 patient visits, which includes employees and their family members. The Cary campus is home to 4,200 employees.

The Van Valkenburghs have two children, Jordan, 3, and Lawson, 9 months. Insurance covered the entire hospital bill for each child's birth.

After each child arrived, the clinic worked with WakeMed Cary Hospital to transfer medical records. "It kind of magically happens," Scott said.

Within a couple of days of taking home a baby, the parents were seeing a SAS doctor, mapping out the child's health-care plan. SAS employees have options when signing up for insurance, and the Van Valkenburghs have a plan administered by Blue Cross and Blue Shield, with the SAS health center as their primary care facility.

The company pays Scott's insurance premium. It costs him $75 a month to cover his wife and another $75 for the children. Day care for each child is $360 per month.

As for health-care reform, Scott thinks people need affordable health-care options. But he hopes that any new plan isn't enacted to the detriment of policies that are already working.

"I'm hopeful there's some balance in between," said Scott, who helps manage the relationships SAS has with other companies. Perhaps Medicare could be used to insure more people, he said. "I don't think there's a simple answer."

For now, though, the family's health-care situation is pretty uncomplicated. Not that the family has experienced all aspects of the coverage.

"It will be interesting when these kids move into orthodontics," Scott said, smiling.

matt.ehlers@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4889

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