Dr. Ashok Rai believes the answers to the nation’s health care woes lie not in Washington, but closer to home — specifically, in local communities. The president and chief executive officer of Prevea Health says people learn about making the right choices to help them live healthier lives in their communities and that education is vital in improving patients’
“We believe there is a significant tie between health and happiness for our own employees and for the public,” Rai says. Prevea’s job is to keep the community healthy, he says of the Green Bay-based health system’s commitment to improving the well-being of area residents. “There is no piece of legislation that will make us healthier. We need to educate people about their health and get in front of any issues.”
One way Prevea does that is by working with businesses to improve the health of their employees through its LeadWell program, which includes everything from staffing onsite clinics to offering health and wellness programs for workers.
“We have seen a huge amount of savings related to our health costs and, even more important, our employees are healthier,” says Tammy Flora, vice president of human resources for Masters Gallery Foods Inc. in Plymouth.
Rai believes the key to improving patient and community health is education. That can take the form of an afternoon featuring Green Bay Packers players talking about eating right and exercising, or working with the City of Green Bay on the Parks Rx program, which encourages local families to get and stay active.
Prevea also donates $300,000 annually to area nonprofit organizations and sponsors two fundraisers that directly benefit local organizations.
Rai’s ideas have attracted increased attention as his presence on the national health care scene grows. Beginning in January, Rai will become board chair of the American Medical Group Association, a trade association that represents multispecialty medical groups and integrated health systems.
Focused on care
Rai’s commitment to community health was shaped by his years working as a hospitalist at St. Mary’s Hospital, which is part of Hospital Sisters Health System and owns 50 percent of Prevea along with physicians.
“When you work in the hospital, you see a lot of people whose entrances were preventable,” he says. “You see smokers with lung disease or people who don’t have their blood pressure under control.”
Prevea offers a number of community health programs designed to educate people and encourage them to change their habits, whether it is getting more exercise or quitting smoking.
“One of the biggest community health issues is what we put in our bodies,” Rai says. “What we drink and eat have long-term effects on our health, including obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes. We have to get our message out there and it starts with the youth.”
One example of Prevea trying to do just that is the recent Get After It LIVE event. Held in mid-August, the event featured a range of health and wellness activities, including games, healthy cooking demonstrations and a discussion led by Rai with Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rodgers and wide receiver Randall Cobb about what they do to stay healthy and their lives off the field.
“I heard a great comment from a mom who was looking forward to her son hearing about what it takes to be an athlete — you have to exercise, you need to eat right,” Rai says.
When people do get sick or injured, Rai says Prevea offers quality, innovative care to its patients close to home. “We want to keep care in the local communities as much as possible,” he says. “Community is everything to us. We just don’t want to help our patients, but the whole community.”
In addition to teaching healthy habits, Prevea is committed to battling community health problems, including the opioid abuse epidemic.
“In a way, we as physicians feel we played a role in causing this by prescribing so many pain medications,” says Dr. Paul Pritchard, Prevea’s vice president and chief quality officer, who is heading up the system’s response.
At one time, Pritchard says there was a movement in medicine to make patients as pain-free as possible, which then led to the over-prescription of painkillers. When people become addicted to painkillers, he says they use several different options to get them, whether it is using medication prescribed for someone else or turning to another drug, including heroin (another opioid).
“No one really knows how bad the problem is in our community. People tell me we just see the tip of the iceberg in the ER or in our local jails,” Pritchard says.
When meeting with law enforcement, Pritchard says it became clear doctors played a role in the problem.
As such, Prevea is battling the opioid epidemic on three fronts: educating physicians about prescribing pain medications; educating patients they should not become upset if not prescribed pain medications; and educating the community about what to do with their pain medications when finished using them.
“We’re not saying ‘don’t prescribe painkillers,’ but rather make sure we are doing it for the right reasons,” Pritchard says.
Creating healthier businesses
Another way Prevea seeks to improve community health is through partnerships with area employers through its LeadWell program, which is designed to improve workers’ health.
N.E.W. Plastics in Luxemburg began working with Prevea five years ago. “We saw it as a way to deal with our increasing health insurance costs and as a way to make our workforce healthier,” says President and CEO Mike Rekitzke.
Initially, Prevea had a nurse on site three days a week, but N.E.W. Plastics wanted to enlarge its program to include employees’ family members. The manufacturer then began utilizing space inside the Prevea clinic across the street where employees and their family members see a designated nurse practitioner. Office visits are free.
Rekitzke says the partnership led to lower absenteeism and health care costs.
“We definitely have a healthier workforce, whether it was employees who quit smoking after participating in a smoking cessation program or someone who lost weight through a weight reduction program,” he says.
Masters Gallery Foods also was looking for a way to improve employee health and lower health costs. When checking with the local hospital — HSHS St. Nicholas — Flora learned about Prevea’s LeadWell program. She says it is a good fit.
“The wellness programs are valuable,” Flora says. “We have not only seen our health care costs go down, but we also use them for workers’ compensation care and have seen those costs go down, too. By catching health problems early, you can prevent costlier diseases, such as heart disease, from developing.”
Masters Gallery Foods has seen another benefit from the close relationship with Prevea: it helps with recruitment.
“Having a clinic where you can go to get care and you don’t need to use insurance and it is easy to get in is huge for us from an attraction and retention point of view,” Flora says.
Created in 1996 by doctors from three Green Bay area clinics, Prevea Health is owned equally by local physicians and HSHS, which Rai says “puts patients in the middle. You don’t have the hospitals telling the doctors what to do, and you don’t have the doctors telling the hospitals what to do. We have grown Prevea in the best interest of patients.”
“HSHS saw the success we had in eastern Wisconsin and asked us to consider moving into that market,” Rai says. “While we took over a couple of clinics, much of the growth there has been organic. People see the kind of quality care we offer.”
And while some health care providers are getting out of the insurance business, Prevea decided to jump in, starting the Prevea360 Health Plan five years ago. The insurance plan is underwritten and administered by Madison-based Dean Health Plan.
“We were working hard to keep our patients healthy and saw the profits go elsewhere,” Rai said. “We thought if the premium is earned here, we should keep the profits here.”
At a time when many businesses and organizations struggle to attract and retain employees, Deb Mauthe, senior vice president of human resources at Prevea, says the health system has bucked that trend by creating a culture where employees feel valued.
“Our reputation precedes us in a good way,” she says. “Employees feel like they are contributing here and really feel a part of the organization. Our own staff members are our best recruiters.”
Rai says creating a workplace where employees want to be fits with its overall commitment to the community and providing the best possible care to patients.
“The Hippocratic Oath drives our company. We may not always do the profitable thing, but we will always do the right thing,” he says.