WASHINGTON -- Small employers struggling with rising health-care costs would benefit from a more competitive system based on value for money, business and health-care industry leaders say.

“The real problem with health-care today is that it doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad, we pay the same,” Health Secretary Michael Leavitt told small-business owners gathered in Washington D.C. on Tuesday for Small Business Week.

Leavitt said rising costs faced by smaller employers are the twin results of quality indifference by both consumers and practitioners, and a siloed structure of billing within the industry. What’s missing, he says, are quality measures, defined prices and the proper incentives to bring costs down.

“Value is the intersection between quality and price,” Leavitt said, adding that prices will come down only when consumers are able to shop around for cost-efficient services.

Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, said smaller employers need to apply the same principles to health-care as they do to any other business.

“The question should be how do we get the best value for money,” Gingrich told the standing-room-only crowd of several hundred small-business owners.

He also prescribed changing workers’ attitudes and behavior by offering healthy snacks in the workplace, access to wellness programs and fitness centers, and year-end bonuses based on a health assessment. At a panel discussion on small-business health-care costs, workplace wellness programs were seen as the most effective tool to cut rising prices.

“I think we’re going to start to see a greater emphasis on prevention, since it costs less down the road,” said Kirsten Sloan of Divided We Fail, a coalition of business, trade and health-care advocacy groups.

The panelists, which included officials from the Heritage Foundation, the Progressive Policy Institute, and the National Federation of Independent Business, also supported current legislation before the House that allows small businesses to pool health-care costs.

Recent surveys show rising health-care costs is a top concern among smaller employers. As part of Small Business Week, Tuesday’s health-care forum had to be pushed ahead an hour to deal with unexpectedly high demand, organizers said.