The head of the largest health insurer in the region is convinced that the ever-growing health care industry is going to be the key to fixing the ailing local economy at long last.

Alphonso O’Neil-White, chief executive officer of HealthNow, was the keynote speaker Thursday at the 9th annual Buffalo News Prospectus Premiere kickoff dinner in Salvatore’s Italian Gardens, Lancaster.

Health care is costly, but as a nation, we’re willing to pay the cost, even as we continue to seek ways to make it less expensive, O’Neil-White said.

“I dare say that everybody in this room, including me, has the expectation that we or our loved ones ... should be able to access ... the highest quality care in unlimited amounts, and without regard to cost. We believe that,” he said. “Some of us would even suggest that medical care, at these levels, is a civil right ... and that it should be embedded in the Constitution.”

The Suffolk, Virginia, native came to Buffalo 17 years ago and is credited with returning BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York to profitability.

Health care, he said, is poised to become the region’s biggest economic engine. By 2020, he said, medical-care spending will reach 20 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product.

“That means 20 percent of everything we produce as a country in our economy is devoted to medical care,” he said. “No other sector of our economy accounts for that much of the gross domestic product.”

In addition to the enormous wave of baby boomers requiring higher levels of medical care, he also noted that, locally, 150,000 additional Western New Yorkers will be newly insured as a result of the Affordable Care Act. That’s a boon for the industry that will add 5.6 million new jobs nationally over this current decade, ahead of construction and other industry. Locally, Buffalo’s downtown medical corridor is expected to produce almost 20,000 new jobs by 2017, O’Neil-White said.

As for controlling rising costs in the industry, he said that the local health care system is not yet a true system of interconnected, integrated care.

The first step to reduce costs will be to build a true health care system with the ability to exchange clinical information on a real-time basis to reduce costly duplication and waste.

“Here in Western New York, we are well on our way to doing just that through an initiative that we call HealtheLink,” O’Neil-White said.

He added that significant progress has been made of late in slowing the rate of growth in health care costs, which, O’Neil-White said, have slowed for the first time in 50 years.

The annual dinner marks the publication of The News’ Prospectus edition, which will be in Sunday’s editions.