Health insurance company executives headed to Las Vegas this week to look for ways to use software and market incentives to cope with mounting pressure to control medical costs.

The executives traveled to the desert for the annual conference of America’s Health Insurance Plans, Washington.

Many of the corporate sponsors who help finance the event were pharmacy benefits managers, software companies, data services companies and health account administrators.

One of the most unusual event give-aways was a miniature, complimentary personal health record CD from Bio-Imaging Technologies Inc, Newtown, Pa. – a symbol of efforts to get the U.S. health care system to adopt the kinds of standardized electronic health record systems that help hold down health care administrative costs in Europe and other parts of the world.

The need to reform the U.S. system is critical, speakers told AHIP conference session attendees at the general sessions.

The speakers addressed the conference attendees as distributors were preparing to premiere “Sicko,” Michael Moore’s film about the U.S. health finance system, and presidential candidates in both the Democratic and Republican parties have been talking about the issue.

One of the general session speakers was Newt Gingrich, a contender for the Republican presidential nomination who began laying the groundwork for his run several years ago, by working with Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and others to develop health system reform proposals.

Another general session speaker was Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who discussed his efforts to expand access to health coverage in California.

“I respect your right to provide a service, earn a reasonable profit for that service and to compete in the marketplace,” Schwarzenegger said, according to a written version of his remarks. “But we all must do more to reform the system…. Doctors, hospitals, government, individuals and – yes – insurers.”

Schwarzenegger said he wants to eliminate some of the red tape that now raises costs for health insurers, but he also told attendees that at least 85% of health insurers’ premium revenues should go directly into patient care.

Speakers at other conference sessions were talking about topics such as studies of large health account programs and strategies for using retail systems to make consumers better health care shoppers.

The ERIC Industry Committee, Washington, and the National Association of Manufacturers, Washington, teamed with IncentOne, Lyndhurst, N.J., to back an employer survey that looked at strategies for persuading group health plan members to change unhealthy practices.

Even at companies with disease management programs, wellness programs and other health management programs, only about 70% offer employees any kind of incentives to shape up, the researchers found.

About 29% offer cash or bonuses, and 21% offer merchandise, the researchers report.

Only 14% of the employers with health management programs have completed formal efforts to analyze program return on investment, and only 26% of the employers believe they are getting returns that are greater than the amounts invested in the programs, the researchers report.

Many conference speakers explored the nuts and bolts of setting up personal health record systems, and many focused on ways to improve the administration of health savings account and health reimbursement programs.

Some speakers talked about another, small-scale approach to controlling health care costs: increasing the convenience of routine care and helping consumers avoid going to the emergency room by setting up “retail health clinics” in locations such as pharmacies and department stores.