2013 Alaska Chamber Fall Conference

Keynote speaker Andrew Sykes, chairman of Health at Work Wellness Actuaries, gives his presentation "Lives lived well, lessons in wellness from every stage in life" presentation during the 2013 Alaska Chamber Fall Conference in the Westmark Hotel Gold Room Tuesday afternoon, October 15, 2013. 

FAIRBANKS — Health care was the dominant theme at Tuesday’s Alaska Chamber conference, with an agenda packed with subjects like workers’ compensation, employee wellness programs and the Affordable Care Act.

The conference, held in Fairbanks this year at the Westmark Hotel, attracted about 200 Alaskans to talk about a variety of business issues. Chamber President Rachael Petro said it wasn’t tough to come up with a dominant topic.

“The new national health care law affects every single business — whether you’re big or small,” Petro said. “It’s important that everyone understands that.”

The event featured more than a dozen information sessions and workshops, from broad discussions about the benefits of healthy employees to arcane elements of new federal health care requirements. The health law, commonly called Obamacare, includes a mandate that companies with more than 50 employees provide insurance for their workforce starting in 2014.

That approaching deadline spurred sessions with names like “The Affordable Care Act and your business,” “The ACA Marketplace, your business and your employees,” and “The ACA — what employers need to know.”

Petro said the presentations were meant to offer guidance to business owners who may be confused by their new obligations.

“Our focus is to help businesses be as successful as they can, given the environment,” she said. “That’s what we want to do.”

The day also included a lengthy presentation on workers’ compensation in Alaska, which has the unwanted distinction of being the costliest in the U.S. Premiums in Alaska are 60 percent higher than the median, said Michael Monagle, director of the Alaska Division of Workers’ Compensation.

Since 2000, when Alaska ranked 28th among the states in workers’ compensation costs, the program has steadily become more expensive. Although the number of injured employees in the state has dipped by a third since 1998, costs are spiking because of high medical costs and legal fees, Monagle said.

Chuck Brady, the workers’ compensation manager for Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, said the Alaska system badly needs to be overhauled, giving employers more of a voice in care expenses and putting limits on legal costs.

He urged chamber members to push for legislative reform, saying a steady increase in the cost of the program can’t be sustained.

“These trends are a little disturbing,” he said. “At some point, you hope they come back down.”

But the scope of the event went beyond government health care programs. The keynote speech was delivered by Andrew Sykes, a health insurance consultant who stressed the benefits of a fit workforce.

While the focus on cutting health care costs often focuses on insurance rates and medical expenses, Sykes said the effect of employee fitness is deeply understated.

A company comprised of smokers who exercise actually have better health-care costs and productivity than a workforce of sedentary non-smokers, he said. Research also shows that morning exercise provides significant boosts to decision-making and memory function throughout the day, Sykes said.

He argued that an increased focus on fitness has a much more profound effect on a company than seeking a more efficient way to treat ailing employees. He said focusing that effort on even the youngest Alaskans would have a lasting effect on the state’s population.

“If we’re committed to have Alaska be one of the healthiest states in the nation … we should consider starting on the problem of wellness much, much earlier,” Sykes said.

Contact staff writer Jeff Richardson at 459-7518. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMbusiness.

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