Northeast Arkansas has experienced a "robust economic expansion" and "some optimism is in order," Michael Pakko, chief economist and state economic forecaster with the University of Arkansas-Little Rock's Institute for Economic Advancement, told business leaders Wednesday at the second annual Regional Economic Forecast in Jonesboro.
About 160 people attended the event, which was organized by Arkansas Business Publishing Group of Little Rock and included panels on health care and manufacturing.
During his presentation, Pakko said the Jonesboro metropolitan statistical area (MSA) is third in the state in growth of gross domestic product. The MSA has also outpaced the state in personal income growth, and Jonesboro benefits from being a retail hub for the region, he said.
The MSA's unemployment rate, at just over 3 percent, is better than both the state and the country. It is the second lowest unemployment rate in Arkansas, Pakko said.
Pakko cautioned that unemployment is not necessarily a good indication of a healthy economy. He said the percentage of the population that is working or looking for a job has declined more than what retiring baby boomers would account for.
Health Care, Manufacturing
Arkansas Business Publisher Mitch Bettis moderated two panels on health care and manufacturing.
Attendees heard from Chris Barber, president and CEO of St. Bernards Healthcare; Steve Spaulding, executive vice president and chief health management officer for BlueCross BlueShield; and Shane Speights, dean of the New York Institute of Technology's College of Osteopathic Medicine at Arkansas State University.
They spoke about rising costs and the need to expand access to health care in rural communities.
Speights said the new osteopathic college's mission is to address Arkansas' physician shortage, especially in the Delta.
On costs, Spaulding said it's a struggle to provide access to high quality and affordable health care and the issue that won't be solved by payers alone.
Every stakeholder must be involved, the group agreed.
Spaulding also said health care professionals should be incentivized in a different way. He said they should be paid for high-quality outcomes instead of a fee-for-service under the existing model.
Spaulding said the solution is not to throw more money at the problem and that regulators, by exercising tight control of premiums, have sent the clear message that they believe 35 percent of health care spending is waste. Insurance companies are working to be more efficient as a result, he said.
The panel also agreed that individuals must take responsibility for their own health care and employers should encourage them to do by making it more convenient for their employees to exercise and eat healthy.
The three were also asked if health care is a right or a privilege.
Speights said taxpayers will decide the answer to that question, but addressing costs requires everyone having "skin the game" and those who come to the table need to understand it will be a give-and-take.
One audience member asked whether a single-payer system is inevitable and if that is a solution to rising costs.
Spaulding said it's possible but not necessarily inevitable. He again touted financially incentivizing outcomes.
Attendees also heard from David Allen, senior director of plant operations for Frito Lay; Kurt Huelsman, president of FMH Conveyors; and David Peacock, president of Hytrol Conveyor Co.
The three on the manufacturing panel agreed that the tight labor pool in the Jonesboro area has been challenge.
They also spoke about the need for K-12 students to learn that, with automation, manufacturing has drastically changed in the past 30 years. They said children need to know they don't all have to go to college to be successful, as they could also earn good money learning a trade.
Huelsman and Peacock also spoke about how the increasing popularity of e-commerce has spurred their growth. Both conveyor companies have recently expanded their Jonesboro footprints and added employees. Frito Lay has also expanded and plans to open a new line.