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Local Health Care Executives Discuss Cost and Access at Congregation Beth Torah Forum

By Mike Sherry, for the KHI News Service, April 26, 2012

By forging a direct relationship with hospitals and insurers, a Johnson County synagogue could become a health reform model for other congregations around the metropolitan area.

In the culmination of a two-year effort to address members’ concerns about cost and access issues, Congregation Beth Torah hosted four local health care executives at its Overland Park building Wednesday evening. About 140 synagogue members attended the two-hour forum.

The chief executives on the panel were:
• David Gentile of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City
• Kathy Howell of Saint Luke’s South hospital
• Bill Tracy of UnitedHealthcare of the Heartland States
• Steve Wilkinson of Menorah Medical Center

The four organizations are the main health care providers and insurers for members of Beth Torah, which has a membership of about 650 families.

Any eye-opener for the congregation came in the fall, when nearly 20 percent of its 200 households responding to a health care survey reported difficulty paying for health care. Nearly a quarter of the respondents said more than 20 percent of their income went to health care costs.

“Those are our members in affluent Johnson County,” said Linda Zappulla, secretary of the synagogue board and an organizer of the forum. “We were surprised.”

At the forum, moderator Eric Morgenstern, chief executive of Morningstar Communications, a public relations agency in Overland Park, presented prepared questions to the panel.

The discussion covered many of the front-burner issues in health care today, including spiraling costs, personal responsibility for one’s own wellness and end-of-life planning.

On the cost side, Wilkinson said hospitals were struggling to contain exploding technology costs. He said he recently approved the purchase of one microscope for the operating room that cost $250,000.

But the broader lesson for other congregations is that they, too, can help their members by developing relationships with the organizations that provide health care to their members, according to the forum organizers.

“I think that could be one of the biggest contributions to the community,” said Jerry Jones, an organizer with Communities Creating Opportunity, a faith-based group in Kansas City, Mo. Beth Torah is member of the organization.

Discussions like the one Wednesday evening can ripple out from the congregation into the community, Wilkinson said.

“Everybody can talk to somebody else,” he said, “and it does make a difference.”

Gentile said that by inviting the health care representatives to speak, the congregation demonstrated its resolve to do more than just gather information.

“They are going to do something about it,” he said. “They are invested in it.”

Synagogue officials said they weren’t sure yet what they would do.

But based on the discussion at the forum, Zappulla said one action area likely would be around wellness.

Surveying the food table at the reception following the forum, Zappulla said future spreads might include more fruit and less cake.

Another idea that surfaced during the forum was having congregants monitor fellow members after hospital stays – in part to make sure they are taking their medications.

Noncompliance with drug regimens is a key reason patients falter after leaving the hospital, Howell said.

Continued discussion at the congregation about end-of-life also is likely said Beth Torah Rabbi Mark Levin.

The panelists stressed that talking about that difficult subject prior to an emergency makes the decisions easier when the time comes and can reduce health care costs by avoiding life-saving measures that the patient might not even want.

Once they hit their mid-50s, Levin said, “People need to understand what is coming, and not be afraid of it, and say, ‘This is simply another stage of life.”

In closing the forum, congregant Wynne Begun marveled that the discussion hardly mentioned the Affordable Care Act, the federal health reform law now before the U.S. Supreme Court. She said that illustrated to her that health care is personal and local.

Even if the U.S. Supreme Court invalidates the law, Wilkinson said, “The kinds of things you heard tonight are going to continue just the same.”

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