LAKELAND, Fla. — As working Americans struggle to manage the rising cost of health care, one Lakeland car dealership has developed a new way of trying to close the door on higher costs.
"It had everything to do with the price of insurance for our employees and the lack of benefits that they got," explained Greg Balasco, who owns Lakeland Auto Mall.
After seeing prices skyrocket all the time, Balasco was fed up.
"Every single year, we had to fight with the increase of premiums that I would have to pass along to the employees," Balasco explained.
So just like cars get redesigned when they have a problem, Balasco decided to go back to the drawing board to design a solution.
Instead of the dealership continuing with one of the big-name insurance companies like Blue Cross or Aetna, Liz Antaya, the dealer's employee benefits advisor helped him create an employer-funded insurance plan.
"Healthcare is normally the number two largest expense after payroll on any corporation's budget," Antaya explained. "We can offer better, higher quality medical care to your employees at less cost."
By customizing to their needs, Antaya created a doctor on-site option for the dealership every two weeks so employees wouldn't have to miss work or wait for an appointment.
"We like to say the Marcus Welby days. So we're removing what we call the middles in going direct," Antaya said. "The patients have 30 to 60-minute appointments, and they can access the doctor anytime they want. They have 24/7 access to him. He gives them their cell phone."
Dr. Christopher Salud, the direct primary care physician and dealership doctor said he enjoys the new way of caring for the employees.
"It gets back to practicing medicine the way you envisioned it, when you became a doctor," Dr. Salud said. "And it's getting to know people, spending time with people and really helping them versus coming in and seeing, you know, patient after patient and not being able to spend time with people."
And, it's not just about caring for their physical health either.
"I'd say with every new patient visit, mental health, mental health history is something that we're going to address," he said.
With traditional insurance Salud used to see up to 4,000 patients per year. But now with self-managed plans, he only sees 400 to 600 patients because he's paid directly by the employer, a specific fee monthly, per employee, almost like a gym membership.
Even though they have complete access to him 24/7, he said it's manageable.
"A lot of physicians say, 'Well, gosh, maybe I don't want my patients to have access to me 24/7?'" Salud said. "But once you get to know the patients, and they know that they have that access to you, they're not calling you with little things. They call you when they need something and oftentimes, it's much easier to resolve."
Salesman Mike Kuykendall said the new arrangement has been good for his family and saved him money.
"I've seen the doctor several times. And he's been very helpful to me and very helpful to my wife as well," said Kuykendall. "This is the first year that our out-of-pocket premiums have gone down. So while it saves the company; it's saving us as well."
Having a primary care doctor at the dealership every two weeks saves Kuykendall the time of needing to take off and wait in a doctor's office.
"You can schedule your appointment during your workday. When your time comes, take your lunch break, step across the street to the building, see the doctor, go back to work," Kuykendall explained.
For the company, the savings from a commercial plan to a self-managed plan can be substantial, sometimes between 20% and 60%.
Balasco said that savings, along with better quality health care for his staff, is why he believes he's attracting the best employees and keeping them on staff.
"If we're taking care of them, if we're helping them to be healthy, if we're helping them make good medical decisions, then our retention is got to be greater. It has to be greater," Balasco said.
Employees like Kuykendall agree.
"The quality of care that we get, I think he's better than we've ever had," he said.
There's more to Balasco's plan than just the doctor. They also have a service called "Nurse Navigator." If Dr. Salud can't address a specific health issue, employees can use the company's nurse navigator and call a 1-800-number where a registered nurse directs them to a specialist.
That service is also free for the employee, paid for by the employer, if they chose a doctor recommended by the nurse.