Newly declared gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna on Wednesday paid his first visit to the Tri-Cities since throwing his hat into the race for the job being vacated by Gov. Chris Gregoire at the end of 2012.
McKenna, who has served as attorney general since Gregoire left that office for the Governor's Mansion in 2005, spent time learning about local offerings in health care and energy production -- two key issues that will have to be tackled by the state's next chief executive.
He took his first-ever tour of Energy Northwest's Columbia Generating Station in north Richland, the state's only operating commercial nuclear power plant, which is powered down for maintenance.
"It was extremely informative and impressive," he said of the tour.
He also visited with staff at Lourdes Health Network, which operates Lourdes Medical Center in Pasco, to hear about the wellness program that has saved the hospital from health insurance premium increases for its workers for the past three years.
Lourdes CEO John Serle told members of the Columbia Basin Badger Club in December that the hospital had reduced premiums for families by about $200 per month -- with the hospital picking up that cost.
They had to undergo health assessments and agree to comply with doctors' instructions to tackle issues like high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
Serle said the premium discount enabled more Lourdes employees with families to be able to afford insurance and to be healthier. As a result, the hospital has seen health insurance premiums remain stable while other businesses have seen double-digit annual increases.
McKenna said the program could serve as a model for the state, which has seen the portion of its budget devoted to health care spending double from 15 percent to 30 percent in the past decade.
"Health care costs are devouring the state budget," he said. "We need innovative programs that will help control costs."
McKenna said he would like to see more emphasis on chronic disease prevention and a move away from a fee-for-service model in which doctors get paid when they treat sick patients or perform tests.
He pointed to Group Health as a potential model for the latter.
"We can't control health care costs through price controls and rationing, which is what Obamacare does," he said, referring to the Affordable Care Act signed by the president in 2010. "The only way to achieve these improvements is to recognize that human beings respond to incentives, whether it's a patient having an incentive to be more cost-conscious, or a provider moving away from the fee-for-service mentality."