IBM is dropping the $20 co-payment for employees’ visits to primary care doctors.

The “no co-pay” scheme will cover employees enrolled in IBM’s self-insured health plan — excluding workers enrolled in HMOs. Overall, IBM has 115,000 employees and spends $1.3 billion on health care.

The WSJ quotes SVP of IBM’s human resources Randy MacDonald, who said that emphasizing primary care is part of an overall “wellness” strategy that tries to keep costs low by preventing illness.

Health Populi’s Hot Points: The data point of one U.S. company dropping a $20 payment for employees visiting a physician may seem trivial. But in fact the implications of this are huge:

1. Here you have company #14 in the 2009 Fortune 500 list designing a health benefit to nudge people to seek primary care by eliminating one of the main barriers (that is, money) to scheduling that appointment.

2. In the past 12 months, 1 in 3 Americans has postponed getting necessary health care due to cost, according to the latest Kaiser Family Foundation Health Tracking Poll.

3. Employers are “getting” wellness and the crucial role of primary care in keeping employees healthy and productive.

In 1996, the Asheville Project measured the impact of dropping a co-pay for a prescription drug targeting maintenance meds for chronic conditions like diabetes and asthma. By dropping co-pays for drugs in a strategic way, patients’ compliance and adherence to prescribed drug regimens improved, thus improving outcomes and increasing peoples’ productivity in their daily lives.

David Hom also evangelizes on the top of value-based benefit design where he honed his skills on the topic at Pitney Bowes. His approach is codified in the book, Total Value Total Return which is required reading for new-and-improved health benefit design.

IBM’s strategy to drop primary care co-pays is the New Asheville — watch for primary care visits among IBM’s employees to increase and for the company’s medical trend to be better managed. This approach also promotes a medical home for every employee, a positive move toward improving access and health management for employees.