City Risk and Benefits Manager Honored by National Business Publication

Communications Director

Kristin Farley
(865) 215-2589

400 Main St., Room 691
Knoxville, TN 37902

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City Risk and Benefits Manager Honored by National Business Publication

Posted: 07/02/2010
2010 Benefit Manager of the Year Info
Business Profile Video of Gary Eastes

Risk and Benefits Manager Gary Eastes has been honored by a national business publication for his role in substantially reducing the city's skyrocketing health insurance costs by focusing on improving employee and dependent health.

Eastes, who has directed the city's Risk Management Office since 2003, was named to Business Insurance magazine's 2010 Benefit Management Honor Roll in its June 28, issue. He was one of only three risk managers nationwide recognized by the magazine, including an IBM executive who was selected as Benefit Manager of the Year and a New York-based health care system executive also named to the honor roll.

The publication noted that Eastes directed a major reconstruction of the City of Knoxville's health insurance plans from 2004-2006 that has done more than just substantially lowering the rate of health care rate increases for both the city and its employees.

"Gary Eastes, risk and benefits manager for the City of Knoxville, Tenn., ushered in significant plan design changes and incentives that have helped save lives and get plan members on the road to healthier living," an editor's note states.

Eastes' selection stems from decisions he and city official - with the support of Knoxville's City Council - made beginning in 2004 when the city was struggling with annual double-digit increases in health insurance premiums. Between 2001 and 2006 Knoxville's health insurance premiums rocketed up 141 percent and its paid medical claims were nearly 30 percent higher than BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee's averages.

At the same time the rate of chronic disease among city employees was also much higher than average for this region. It was a situation that needed to change and Eastes realized the approach had to move from focusing primarily on costs to focusing on employees' health.

He and his staff encouraged individual employees and their family members to adopt healthier lifestyles by creating a program of health care reimbursement accounts that paid employees for things like exercising regularly, refraining from using tobacco and participating in chronic disease care programs. The money can be used for medical, dental and vision expenses.

Employees who enroll in the programs also participate in annual health screenings with the medical staff at the city's Health, Education and Wellness Center - created as part of this effort.

The full program was in place by 2006 and Summit Medical Group came onboard in 2007 to open the health center.

"We did this because the city cannot control its medical insurance costs," Eastes said in early 2007. "We know now that the only way to control medical insurance costs is to work with employees to improve their health and lower the number of claims filed each year."

He and the Risk Management staff also successfully communicated their goals to employees, many of whom were leery about the changes. Today more than 1,000 city employees are enrolled in at least one of the programs and many are in more than one.

The results have been dramatic. The city's health care costs climbed a little more than four percent in 2008 and 2009, less than half the national average and a far cry from the 20-plus percent increases prior to 2006.

That has saved money for both taxpayers and city employees, who pay for about a quarter of their health insurance premiums.

Just as importantly the screenings have resulted in the early detection of potentially devastating health care problems like diabetes, heart problems and cancer in numerous individuals that may have saved some lives.

In a letter supporting Eastes' nomination for the Business Insurance honor Mayor Bill Haslam wrote, "I realize that you are considering many worthy candidates for this award, but I think you will be hard-pressed to find one who has developed and managed a program as successful as the City of Knoxville's Health Care Incentives Program."

Haslam closed his letter noting, "Gary Eastes efforts have made a tremendous difference for the City of Knoxville, its citizens and in the lives of its employees."