By Dr. Oren Gersten
The big economic news story of the last month has been the worker shortage. As people become vaccinated and start to resume normal activities, businesses become busier. Many of these businesses had to cut back worker hours, or in some cases even close during the pandemic. Now that restrictions are easing, commerce is becoming feasible again with one missing piece: workers.
Although unemployment is relatively low, many employers are reporting that they are experiencing a worker shortage. There are different views on why this may be. Economists speculate that low wages could be a deterrent to people going back to work. Others think that unemployment benefits, which were increased early in the pandemic, may make it less appealing for people to re-enter the labor market. Others cite continued health concerns with Covid exposure being exponentially higher in frontline and service industry workers. The true story is likely some combination of all of the above.
In medicine we first look for a diagnosis before we can recommend a treatment. If the diagnosis above is correct, what is the treatment?
One opportunity could be to incentivize returning to work by making employment more attractive. Historically benefits such as health insurance, retirement plans, and paid time off were used to attract workers. Unfortunately, in the low margin sectors where workers are most likely to be scarce there is typically not a budget to offer a robust benefit package. For a typical business to offer even the most meager health insurance plan they must spend 20% of their overhead. This for a service the workers may never use.
This is where low cost, high value health care options come in.
Increasingly small businesses are turning towards local doctors who offer health care services for a fixed fee. In our area the New England Direct Primary Care Alliance is one such organization. I joined the NEDPCA in 2018 when I opened my practice in South Portland.
By contracting directly with a doctor or a group of doctors, a company can offer health care access for a fraction of the cost of what it might take to offer an insurance plan. In addition to keeping spending local, this service offers a benefit the employee is more likely to use and therefore appreciate. It makes sense that worker retention not only saves businesses money but leads to better worker satisfaction. From a doctor’s perspective working together with other independent local doctors allows us increased bargaining power to negotiate great deals for our patients on things like labs, meds, and imaging.
As we progress through this pandemic an investment in health care may be the solution that we need to rebuild a happy, healthy workforce and re-open businesses. Looking beyond traditional insurance may be a way smaller businesses can invest in their workers and attract employees without going over budget or wasting money.
Oren Gersten is a board-certified family doctor. He brings his passion for connecting and caring to his private practice, Portland Direct Primary Care in South Portland. Reach him at (207) 618-9792 or visit PortlandDirectCare.com.