Uncertainty, Leadership and Risk

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Following the chairman’s address to conference attendees, Jeffrey Cunningham, managing director and senior advisor to NACD, led the first opening plenary session titled “Uncertainty, Leadership and Risk.” The session consisted of a question-and-answer session with Mark Bertolini, chairman and CEO of Aetna. The discussion focused on the recently passed Affordable Care Act, and how it stands to affect U.S. businesses.

With 79 percent of the next $10 trillion worth of national debt attributed to Medicare expenses, making health care affordable is a priority for improving U.S. economy. In his opening remarks, Bertolini observed that if the nation could resolve its waste issue–nearly $810 billion is wasted every year–Americans could solve half the national debt in the next 10 years. Furthermore, if healthcare costs were reduced by 6 percent, the nation could pay off the costs of the Affordable Care Act over the next 10 years.

When asked how Americans could be incentivized to live healthier lives, thus reducing health care costs, Bertolini recommended simple solutions. For periodontal disease–seen in more than half of Americans over the age of 45–he recommended making a habit of flossing just one tooth a day. If this becomes a continued practice, maybe Americans will extend to floss all their teeth, resulting in reduced plaque buildup, which in turn may reduce the risk of heart disease.

A member of the bipartisan Fix the Debt Coalition, Bertolini was also questioned on his views of the fast-approaching fiscal cliff. He projected that, if not solved, the nation could see negative GDP of 1.7 percent. He observed that businesses are already cautious of the potential repercussions: stockpiling capital, investing less, and letting more workers go. While the coalition is unlikely to issue its full recommendations by Dec. 31, the group plans to issue a memorandum outlining the plan in 20 points.

Cunningham also asked Bertolini, who started his career as an assembly line worker for Ford Motor, about his personal view on his professional trajectory. Surprising some members of the audience, he responded that he has never set career goals. Instead, his method of following a “random walk” has resulted in never needing to put together a resume, or interview for a job. According to Bertolini, “I fix broken things and build new things. I do not make the trains run on time…but I know how to make sure that is happening.”

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