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GE Launches $6 Billion Plan to Develop Health Care Innovations

The company goes to Washington to introduce an initiative it says will provide better health care at lower costs to more people—goals shared by many lawmakers.

May 7, 2009
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With the pace of health care reform quickening in Congress, General Electric came to Washington on Thursday, May 7, to launch a multibillion-dollar initiative it says will provide better health care at lower costs to more people—goals shared by many lawmakers.

The company also hopes the $6 billion program, dubbed “healthymagination,” will substantially boost its bottom line by fostering the growth of GE Healthcare.

During the next six years, GE plans to invest $3 billion in research and development to create at least 100 technologies and innovations it says will reduce the cost of medical procedures by 15 percent, increase access to health services by 15 percent and improve quality and efficiency by 15 percent. Another $3 billion will be allocated to improving coverage in rural and poor communities around the world.

GE’s priorities include expanding health information technology, lowering the cost of health care equipment and promoting consumer-driven health care.

Another piece of the initiative involves improving the health of GE’s 300,000 employees. The company will try to keep its health care costs below the rate of inflation by transforming its 175 health centers into “wellness clinics,” offering incentives for prevention, providing workers with personal health records and banning smoking at its facilities.

GE is also getting its media arm involved. NBC Universal and NBC News have committed to airing 5,000 hours of televised health care reports and related online tools.

The effort is modeled on GE’s “ecomagination,” a program started in 2005 to put the company at the forefront of environmental technology. It has resulted in 75 new products that are expected to generate $18 billion in revenue this year.

The size and scope of the company will allow GE to make an impact on health care in the same way it has on the environment, according to GE chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt.

“At the cornerstone are technology and investment—things GE can do,” Immelt told an audience at the Newseum, a media museum a few blocks from Congress.

During his presentation, he showed pictures of ultrasounds, CT scanners, infant warmers and electronic medical records that he said are examples of cutting-edge equipment that GE will make at a range of prices, including levels affordable in low-income areas.

“We’ve got a big pipeline,” Immelt said.

Health IT products occupy several spaces on the conveyor belt. The $787 billion economic stimulus bill included about $20 billion for health IT. Immelt said government spending didn’t spur “healthymagination.”

“We would do this with or without stimulus,” he said.

GE’s effort will produce benefits for consumers, shareholders, employees and the public, according to Immelt. He acknowledged that critics are likely to call it a marketing campaign.

“It’s a business strategy,” Immelt said. “We don’t run a charity at GE. We make money.”

Any company—or country—will realize productivity and economic gains from improving the health of its workforce or population, Immelt argued.

“Health means wealth,” Immelt said.

Lon O’Neil, president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, praised GE for extending that attitude to its own operations by involving employees in a “culture of health.”

“The wellness initiative, employee incentive program and ‘healthy work site’ certification process outlined by GE should provide HR professionals with some valuable key learnings on how to contain costs while promoting employee health,” said O’Neil, who attended the GE event. “And that’s what HR does: leads win-win efforts for both employees and the company. It’s great to see a leader like GE embracing the essence of HR.”

O’Neil, formerly an executive at Kaiser Permanente, a large health care organization, said wellness and prevention programs should be central to health care reform.

When Congress looks for input from the private sector, GE likely will be one of the companies it taps.

“We believe in universal, affordable coverage from the standpoint of access,” Immelt said. “Change is going to take place—and we need to be constructive vis-à-vis how that change happens.”

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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