Wellness Programs Potential Cure For Insurance Hikes

September 4, 2007
| By Pete Daly |
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Health care costs keep going up, driving up employee insurance premiums. Is there no known cure?

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average cost in March for health benefits in private industry was $1.83 per hour worked, equal to 7.1 percent of total compensation. In March 1998, it was 5.4 percent.

From 2004 to 2005, the increase in cost of employer health insurance plans was 9.2 percent — three times the rate of inflation and three times the increase in workers' earnings, according to a survey by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation/Health Research and Educational Trust.

Employers trying to put the brakes on health insurance costs are turning to "wellness" strategies, which encourage employees to adopt healthier lifestyles, which should reduce medical claims.

Do wellness programs really work?

Hope College launched a wellness program for its 550 employees in January. Maureen Dunn of the department of kinesiology said while it is "too soon" to gauge its impact on employee health and health insurance costs, there is a "strong positive response from employees."

The college offers group classes, including yoga, aerobics, tae kwon do, t'ai chi, dancing, cardio tennis, flexibility for seniors, "mindfulness" and meditation, and stress management.

Also offered, Dunn said, are fitness assessments, regular blood pressure and weight checks in the employee's office, monthly seminars on nutrition and healthy cooking; bi-weekly neck/back massage on campus; access to a personal trainer on campus at reduced fees; and blood cholesterol and glucose measurements. Each department has a discount snack tray of "healthy snacks" available each day.

Hope employees are encouraged to log their wellness activities and results. About 100 have been doing so regularly, and they are entered in a drawing to win small cash prizes.

Wellness programs obviously work, but the trick is in getting employees involved, and then keeping them involved.

Facilities Resource Group, a Grandville company that employs about 70 and has a fitness center on site, had a wellness program last year that ran from June through December. Activities included individual health risk assessments, an employee weight loss contest, and classes on eating healthy, smoking cessation and other topics. About a third of the staff participated, losing a total of 173 pounds. One employee lost 27 pounds.

Participants also saved a little money.

Rick Kuiper, the company's director of finance/administration, said an incentive to participate was a 5 percent credit toward the employee-paid portion of their health coverage plan for the year 2007.

Kuiper said FRG probably has several thousand dollars invested in its workout room, which is equipped with weight-lifting equipment, punching bag, recumbent bikes, jump ropes and other equipment. Employees may use the fitness center any time during the workday, "but obviously your workload dictates when that's going to happen," said Kuiper.

"This year, we have more of an informal wellness program," said Kuiper. "The formal program we had last year was kind of a jumpstart to a healthier lifestyle. We don't want to be in people's faces forever on this.”

Instead, he said, the goal is to provide opportunities and a culture that welcomes a healthier lifestyle.

Hope College employees are on campus every work day — good targets for a wellness program.

But some organizations face a tougher challenge.

Founded in 2000 by John Weeber and Jim Faber, Facilities Resource Group is involved in construction and facilities services throughout the eastern United States. It plans, installs and maintains electrical, mechanical, lighting, air conditioning, heating, security and energy management systems with customers throughout the eastern United States. Its major expertise is in installing and maintaining restaurant equipment, with customers that include several casual-dining restaurant chains. Close to home, the customers include industrial companies and West Michigan school systems.

"A company like ours provides services all over the map. Most of our staff seldom sees the office," said Kuiper.

He was pleased with the rate of participation of the employees who work mainly in the firm’s headquarters in Grandville. But the field staff was different.

"How do you get them into the (wellness program) when they're in Toledo for two weeks or Kansas City for a week?" said Kuiper.

Over time, some employees who are able to participate in a wellness program tend to drop out, for a variety of reasons.

"It's not difficult to motivate people, but there are so many things competing for their time. It's difficult to get them to stick with it," said Kuiper.

The Facilities Resource Group wellness program was modeled after a prototype developed by the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.

The firm also received input from its insurance agency, Berends Hendricks Stuit, and from the Kent County Health Department, The Wellness Center of Priority Health and the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids.

While it assumed a leadership role in developing a prototype wellness program and implementing one of its own, even the Chamber of Commerce found continual success to be elusive.

Last year, the Chamber launched its own in-house program, "Walking for Wellness."

Walking "is something anybody can do, and it's low cost — perhaps only the price of pedometers," said Andy Johnston, public policy coordinator at the Chamber.

The Chamber's walking campaign was voluntary but most of the 30 employees did participate, said Johnston. They received free pedometers from the American Heart Association and formed teams of four. Each Chamber team kept track of its total footsteps and there was competition to see how far each team actually went.

Johnston said "Walking for Wellness" wasn't just good exercise, it was fun — and winning teams earned a professional health massage.

Competition "pushes people to go further, to try to do more. It built camaraderie, as well," said Johnston.

They still are watching their weight at the Chamber: "The peer pressure helps get results," noted Johnston, but eventually the team walking contests "fizzled."

"As we did it a second and third time, the enthusiasm waned," said Johnston.

Workplace wellness programs in general are a challenge. “You're asking people to make personal changes, at work," said Johnston.

Obesity is the most likely target of any wellness program because it is so prevalent and has a major impact on health. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, all obesity-related medical situations cost U.S. employers about $13 billion a year.

Miller Canfield Paddock & Stone, a major Michigan law firm with offices in Grand Rapids, started a wellness program in 2003. After three years, the firm’s health care claims were down by 5 percent, even though it had 7 percent more employees covered under its health care plans.

William J. Parsons, who was Miller Canfield's human resources director in Detroit when the wellness program was implemented, wrote about the success of the company’s program in an article published recently in Detroiter, a publication of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce.

He said the firm gives each employee who participates in the program a $150 credit toward health care coverage. The company also subsidizes health club memberships and offer various gifts and cash rewards to employees who exercise. Seventy percent of Miller Canfield’s employees participate and after five years, more than half of the participants have no more than two health risk factors.

Parson said most successful wellness programs include monetary rewards, but he added that research indicates each dollar invested by the employer returns three to five dollars.

"The starting point for a successful wellness program is engaging upper management," said Parsons.

"Their support and active commitment will make it easier to reach the participation levels needed to make the program a success."

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