Wellness Is Priority No. 1

December 30, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Priority Health, West Michigan's top local health insurer, has added The Wellness Center's programs to its existing disease prevention and health promotion offerings.

"Wellness has been core to the way Priority Health does business, and what this does is raise the bar even further in terms of the depth of wellness products and services we can offer," said Wendy Wigger, Priority Health's director of wellness.

The insurer would not disclose the financial details of last fall's transaction. The center previously was a joint venture between Metro Health and Spectrum Health.

The Wellness Center is not a physical entity, so no real estate changed hands in the transaction. Instead, Priority Health added The Wellness Center's eight employees to its existing team of four headed by Wigger. It also took over all of the center's wellness contracts with local employers. Many of them already used Priority Health as their health insurer, though 20 of the companies served by the center represent new relationships for Priority. Working with those companies to maintain wellness programs likely gives Priority Health a good chance at scoring some new business.

"I'm sure there will be those opportunities where folks that may not have necessarily considered Priority Health before will begin to see how (promoting wellness) is core to how we do business," said Wigger. "I'm certainly not going to complain if we win some folks over."

But that was not the primary motivation for the acquisition, Wigger said. Priority was planning to increase its ability to offer customized wellness programs to its clients. Instead of expanding its existing programs and trying to win business away from The Wellness Center, it was easier to simply consolidate. Plus, Wigger said, the center's work is very much in line with what her department does for Priority.

"They work very closely with local employer groups … to team up with those employers to develop and deliver — and, in many cases, manage — their overall wellness activities on site," she said. "So that could range anywhere from health screens to health risk appraisals to incentive programs to working with a company to begin to work with their return on investment in terms of wellness activities."

Increasing the wellness department to 12 individuals allows Priority Health to better serve clients throughout the state. The staff works out of the Grand Rapids campus for now, but Wigger said that might lead to branch offices in the not-too-distant future.

"We'll be looking to expand our wellness services to all employers in the 38 counties that we're currently active in," she said.

Building the capacity to provide these services is critical to Priority's future success, Wigger said. Her department is working to offer concrete data to show how wellness programs have benefited Priority clients in recent years.

"As we're able to demonstrate more clearly the actual return on that investment — or what the value of that investment is — we think that we're going to start seeing more and more employer groups that are going to want to actively partner on some of these wellness activities," she said.

Priority Health has found that small businesses are just starting to realize that encouraging employee health and wellness through formal, company-sponsored programs can have a positive impact on the bottom line of health care costs.

Not all of The Wellness Center was absorbed by Priority Health. For practical reasons, Metro Health Hospital retained one of the center's programs. Metro Health CEO Michael Faas said that his organization is keeping the Executive Physical Program since it is able to directly deliver patient care, whereas Priority Health cannot.    

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