The Health Section

Aetna Chairman and CEO Bertolini talks community health, changing health care

Aetna Chairman and CEO Mark T. Bertolini joined the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) for a provocative look at the future of health care. During the wide-ranging conversation, Bertolini discussed how Aetna has invested in its own employees through our “social compact”; how we are addressing the issue of social determinants of health through programs like the Healthiest Cities and Counties Challenge; and how delivering preventive care to people in their homes can help reduce hospital visits and bring down health care costs.

“We believe the only way to truly disrupt the cost of health care … is to go into the homes and meet the social determinants that are now driving as much as 60 percent of life expectancy of Americans,” Bertolini said to Dennis Berman, WSJ financial editor. “Your zip code matters more than your genetic code when it comes to life expectancy. There are zip codes inside of Baltimore and zip codes inside of Chicago, where the average life expectancy is 16 to 20 years less than zip codes around them.”

A number of factors unrelated to health, such as education, housing, transportation and access to fresh food, can contribute to someone’s health. Recognizing this, the Aetna Foundation launched the Healthiest Cities and Counties Challenge in 2016. The challenge will award $1.5 million in prizes to communities that show measurable improvements in health indicators and social determinants of health.

Bertolini also referred to a Kaiser Family Foundation study that found 10 percent of a person’s life expectancy is related to clinical care; 20 percent is related to social determinants; 40 percent is related to lifestyle; and 30 percent is related to genetics.

“Getting into the community and getting into homes is a very important investment,” Bertolini said.

Equally important is investing in Aetna’s employees.

“We’re in a service business,” Bertolini said at the WSJ forum. “If we don’t invest in the people working in our organization, how do we expect them to be good people in dealing with our customers?”

In January 2015, Aetna raised the minimum hourly wage for U.S. employees to $16 per hour, which created higher wages for about 5,700 employees. An enhanced benefits program lowering out-of-pocket health care expenses for thousands of eligible U.S. employees was also launched.

In August 2016, the company announced a student loan repayment program. With the average student loan debt in the U.S. totaling $35,000, the program will help ease the burden for recent graduates.

In January 2017, Aetna began matching loan payment contributions up to $2,000 a year with a lifetime maximum of up to $10,000 for full-time U.S. employees who graduated on or after Dec. 1, 2013. Aetna will match contributions up to $1,000 a year with a lifetime maximum of $5,000 for part-time employees.