Firms Reward Healthy Workers

September 26, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — With health-care costs climbing, some businesses are going for their employees' wallets — but instead of taking more, they are putting money in.

Denise Sherwood, principal at Spectrum Benefits LLC, helps companies put together wellness plans that give employees incentives, such as up to 20 percent off their yearly premium if they have a health assessment and create goals leading to healthier lifestyles.

The goal is to educate and encourage employees to live healthier lives in hopes of lowering companies' health costs, Sherwood said.

Obesity and heart disease, along with other health issues that may be linked to lifestyle choices such as smoking, not exercising or not eating properly are targeted as areas where consumers can help lower health-care costs. Employers encourage their employees to make healthy choices by providing incentive plans within their health benefits.

"Clients are really getting into consumer-driven medical plans," she said.

Though Sherwood said many companies tried wellness programs such as walking clubs or weight-reduction programs at the workplace, they gained little momentum because there were few rewards. The new system rewards people financially and saves them money.

Employees go through a health-risk appraisal with their insurance company, and then choose a health goal for the year. The appraisal is private, as is the goal. The insurance company will relay the statistics back to the company once the information is gathered, but no individual information will be known. The insurance company will also keep the client updated on whether the employee has accomplished his or her fitness goal.

When employees take the health assessment, they are asked a series of questions about their lifestyle, family history and other factors that may affect their health.

"It identifies for the client all the areas they need to focus on," Sherwood said.

Employees take the health assessment, set their goal and have a prevention service done, such as an annual physical. At the end of the year, they will receive one month's premium back.

The second year of the program, companies begin a wellness strategy. Programs that help employees with issues such as smoking and obesity are popular because claims related to those issues tend to be high.

"You have to educate the employees," Sherwood said.

Once the programs are implemented, they will be used indefinitely.

There are many options for programs to help promote good health, such as smoking cessation, exercise programs, cholesterol-lowering programs and programs to reduce blood pressure.

Sherwood said the companies that are most successful at the program are the ones that have a company leader who values health and encourages the employees.

Kim Thomas, director of human resources at AquinasCollege, said the college started a wellness program in January with positive results. The wellness program is an option with Priority Health, the college's current health insurance carrier.

"I'm really happy that we were given this opportunity to implement the program," she said. "Just like any other business, our health-care costs were spiraling out of control. We really ran out of options on how to control our health insurance."

Employees must fill out a health risk assessment and determine a goal for the next six months.

If the employees complete the assessment and their commitment to a goal, in July they receive a 10 percent rebate of their health contribution for the past six months. They have another chance to earn the 10 percent rebate from July to January.

Aquinas also has gone to local health clubs and secured discounts for their employees.

"We also threw on the table that we would give our employees up to three hours a week paid time that they could use for any fitness activity," she said.

Employees have to consult with their manager to make sure there are no gaps in service, but Thomas said the system so far has worked well. Employees tend to come in late, leave early or take longer lunches to accommodate their fitness schedule.

There is also a Weight Watchers program at the college, Thomas said.

"We probably have anywhere between 10 and 15 employees that take advantage of it," she said.

For some, results are already showing. Thomas said she knows of one employee who has reduced two of the medications she was on for diabetes by taking part in the program.

"Obviously, it can work," Thomas said.

Though the majority of employees have elected to enroll in the wellness option of the health-care plan, not even half of those eligible are taking the three hours of paid fitness time. Thomas said there will be little in the way of concrete feedback on how the program is going until the end of the year.

The college also offers health seminars throughout the year and other opportunities for those who wish to learn more about their health.

"Right now there are lots of things that we would love to do, and we've talked about implementing walking clubs on campus," she said. "Right now we're looking for the resources to be able to do that."    

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