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How Aetna CEO brings health and healing to workplace

Before Mark Bertolini became CEO of Aetna, he almost died on a family ski trip, and while recovering, he looked for alternative ways to manage pain
Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini on changing workplace and health care 08:14

Before Mark Bertolini became CEO of Aetna, he almost died on a family ski trip. While recovering, he looked for alternative ways to manage the pain, reports "CBS This Morning" co-host Gayle King. Bertolini found healing in yoga and meditation, and it helped change the way he viewed recovery.

"Recovery is a state of mind. It's not just a physical practice, and that if you get your mind in the right place, you can do almost anything you can managing pain," Bertolini said Thursday on "CBS This Morning." "My pain is still very intense every day, it never stops, it's 24/7, but I don't take any drugs or medication for it. I just deal with it in a different way, being present in the moment, understanding that this pain is part of my journey and just deal with it," Bertolini said.

It inspired him to bring that new mindset to one of the nation's largest health insurance companies with 46 million customers, re-creating it in the workplace to improve the health of his 50,000 employees.

An essential component to his plan is an all-inclusive wellness center that includes doctors, exam rooms and massage therapy. Workers can even get lab work done and prescriptions filled.

There's a cafeteria run by chefs who create healthy food options, from a super-stocked vegetarian salad bar to a nutritious meals-to-go program. But the distinctive component of his health program is the fitness center, where employees are encouraged to exercise any time of day.

It's all a part of his belief that "employee engagement is everything in the service economy."

"If we're going to invest in our people to get them engaged every day, we have to reduce their stress levels, we have to pay them fairly, we have to allow them to live their lives fully so that when they're taking care of other people, they don't have all that other baggage with them," Bertolini said.

Bertolini also converted a substantial number of employees to the two practices he credits with his recovery: virtual classes in mindfulness and yoga.

"When we go back to our desks, we can bring more poise and more calmness and more focus to the people we're working with, and eventually that translates into a more compassionate workplace," Aetna employee Cheryl Jones said.

Employees report a 28 percent decrease in stress levels, a 20 percent improvement in sleep quality and 19 percent reduction in pain. Reportedly all of that zen is translating to a happier and more productive workplace, but of course, it comes at a cost.

"So we had $2,500 a year more expense per employee that was at the highest level of stress when we started this program. It's down to about $2,000 for people at the highest level of stress," Bertolini said. "We've saved people's marriages; they've lost weight. We had people come back and say, 'You know what? You saved my life.' And it cost us $197,000 to do the first program. If that saved one life, I think that's like a huge return on investment."

For stockholders who might question how this might affect the company's bottom line, Bertolini said he's focused on the sustainability of the business over time.

"If you look at our stock price change over time as a company, it's up 270 plus percent over the last five years. It's largely been the price earnings multiple, and that's people's belief as to whether or not customers will continue to buy our stuff," Bertolini said.

As a leader for a company that brings in $58 billion a year in revenue through its health insurance services and pension business, Bertolini advocates for insurance payment reform. Attempts at price control, including legislation around the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) "doc fix," or how the government pays doctors treating Medicare patients, aren't going to work, he said.

"We have to reward people for the right outcome and that outcome is better health. So instead of trying to eliminate disease or pay every time somebody touches a patient, let's pay them for preserving the health or improving the health of a population," he said.

It's not only through preventative medicine, but also by addressing the sick people who are "wandering in the system aimlessly, spending lots of money."

"The top 5 percent of Medicare consume 42 percent of the Medicare budget. The top 5 percent of people. $9,000 a month because they're not managed. So how do we help them go through the system and how do we reward the system for making them healthier?"

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