Archive for Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Companies find benefits in spending a little money on employee health

Allen Hout (left), an employee with the Lawrence Paper Company for 36-years, has his blood pressure checked by nurse practitioner Crystal Acker. The company has a wellness clinic where employees can make appointments similar to a doctor's office.

Allen Hout (left), an employee with the Lawrence Paper Company for 36-years, has his blood pressure checked by nurse practitioner Crystal Acker. The company has a wellness clinic where employees can make appointments similar to a doctor's office.

December 17, 2008


Wellness programs are becoming a popular way for companies to cope with the increasing price of health care.

“Employers have done just about all they can do in terms of changing plan designs and changing insurance companies and all of the traditional kinds of things that they tried back in the managed care era,” said Jack Bastable, national practice leader of health and productivity management at CBIZ Employee Services.

About five years ago, he said, businesses started realizing that 70 percent of costs associated with health care are due to preventable conditions, such as smoking, obesity and type II diabetes. In fact, it is estimated that preventable behaviors cause illnesses that cost the U.S. healthcare system an estimated $100 billion each year. Now, about 85 percent of U.S. businesses have wellness programs.

“It’s a paramount necessity that employees start taking better care of themselves,” Bastable said. “At the same time, employers must set the stage by getting involved and promoting healthy lifestyles among employees by implementing effective wellness programs.”

He said both large and small companies are now fine-tuning their programs so they are more effective. For example, instead of just offering a discount on a gym membership, they also are offering coaches and programs to help employees stop smoking. They also might offer incentives to get a health evaluation. That evaluation might detect a health problem in the early stages when costs are lower than at the full-blown stages.

“Good wellness programs will save an employer money,” Bastable said.

Employers would like to see the savings on their premiums, but the savings often come in areas such as better productivity, less absenteeism and less workers compensation.

“If you have two equal people, the person who is healthier will outperform the person who is not,” Bastable said. “Healthier people always outperform those who are not.”

State’s plan earns honors

The Kansas Health Policy Authority recently received an award from the Institute for Health and Productivity Management for innovative strategies in its state employee health plan. The plan is designed to control costs by promoting healthy lifestyles and personal responsibility.

The plan includes:

• Incentives for tobacco users to stop smoking and for nonsmokers to remain smoke-free.

• A wellness plan called HealthQuest, which offers a financial incentive for taking a personal health assessment and 24-hour health coaching.

• Information about cost-effective prescription drug use.

• Outreach for those who suffer from chronic health conditions.

“They were recognized because of the design of their plans and the programs that they offer to really support the health and well being of the state’s employee health plan members,” said Bastable, who also is director of education for value-based health for the Institute for Health and Productivity Management.

Mike Michael, deputy director of the state employee health plan, said the plan is available to about 76,000 individuals, which includes employees, spouses and dependents under age 18. He said the state has had a wellness program for years, but in 2008 expanded the offerings to include health coaching, health screenings and lowered co-payments on diabetic and asthma drugs.

“The hope would be that the individuals would have easier access from an economical standpoint to staying on the medications that they needed to,” Michael said. “So, hopefully, they didn’t end up with an asthmatic event or something where the person ends up in the ER.”

He said the state offered a $50 gift card incentive to participate in a health screening and 15,774 people took them up on the offer. The health screenings tested things such as blood pressure, cholesterol, weight and glucose level. Once done, employees could enter those results into an online health assessment tool where they would get a report on their health status and suggestions on what to do.

“Our hope was that some folks then in turn, maybe, take that information and contact the health coach and have some support behind them,” Michael said.

Now, the state’s biggest challenge is spreading the word about their health care initiatives. They have employees in 105 counties and retired members who live across the United States.

“We cross a lot of areas and there are a lot of services available to the employees and, of course, we are going to work more on engagement strategies to make sure that folks know about the program,” Michael said.

Wellness works locally

On a smaller scale, Lawrence Paper Co. has 280 employees and a wellness program that includes an onsite clinic that opened in April 2007. The clinic is available two days a week and can provide items such as prescriptions, lab work, shots and wellness checks.

“To implement and gear them toward wellness and lifestyle changes, they must visit the nurse practitioner twice a year and they also must participate in our annual health fair,” said Liz Stark, assistant personnel director.

Such requirements don’t bother longtime employee Milly Fergus. She described the health fair as wonderful and said she takes the results to her doctor. The health fair and clinic, she said, saves her time and money.

“When you stop and think about how much money that saves from going to the doctor, it’s great,” Fergus said. “It’s just real convenient and very good.”

Stark said the health initiatives have lowered the company’s health care costs, but expects more savings over time. That’s because the clinic is relatively new. The company’s plan also provides disease management and chronic care services for free. Shots and lab work are provided at lower costs.

She described the wellness program and clinic as a win-win situation for the employer and employees.

“The only way that there’s not cost savings to the employee is if they do not participate in the actual wellness program that we offer, but we have very high participation.”


Ryan Neuhofel 9 years, 2 months ago

Does anyone else find the inherent linkage between your employer and health care/insurance ridiculous? Or maybe we should just apply that relationship to all types of insurance: get our auto insurance through our employer so we would drive safer or home insurance so we would keep up on maintenance.

Connacht 9 years, 2 months ago

I think the article was more about discovering that it's cheaper to keep people healthy than treat them when they get sick. It wouldn't surprise me that companies who keep their employees/workers healthy enjoy reduced costs in health insurance payouts. The biggest drain on our healthcare resources comes from people with very preventable diseases, mostly associated with smoking or obesity. And the way our healthcare system works, taxpayers essentially get to foot the bill every time some obese person has a heart attack and can't afford to pay for treatment. I think I probably could get auto and home insurance through my employer. I honestly wouldn't be surprised if that became the way of the future.

Ryan Neuhofel 9 years, 2 months ago

Getting any "benefit" in the form of insurance, etc. from an employer hides the true cost and value of the service. This extra barrier usually lowers quality as well - what incentive does your health insurance to provide good service to you when you didn't even directly choose or pay for their services? (I guess you can just quit jobs when you are unhappy with a benefit provider. ha ha) It also creates a continuity issue with seeing the doctors of your choice when your employer chooses a different provider (for most people on a frequent basis). Employer-based health insurance (and it's backing by the tax code) is the primary problem effecting health care delivery in our country. Connacht, maybe your employer can provide your groceries as well. I will choose to make decisions on goods and services independent of my employer when possible.

jafs 9 years, 2 months ago

It's a good and valid question:Why do employers pay for health care?Especially interesting because there have been no regulations requiring them to do so - although that may change soon.Perhaps businesses have a vested interest in keeping their employees healthy so that they can work productively, and not take many sick days?

Ryan Neuhofel 9 years, 2 months ago

The reason that we have employer-based health insurance is due to several government actions. Employers started offering "health benefits" in the 1950's due to "wage and price controls" to compensate employees instead of just paying them cash. This ridiculous relationship has been re-inforced by the tax code that discriminates against private individuals shopping for insurance - health insurance is not taxed if it is purchased by an employer for an employee, and a individual choosing health insurance outside of employer options (or the self-employed) is using after-tax monies. jafs, I'm certain buisness does have a desire to promote healthy employees, but I think their employees (the individuals themselves) have more at stake!

Thinking_Out_Loud 9 years, 2 months ago

Actually, neuhofel, the reason I am ~glad~ my company provides insurance, wellness programs, an employee assistance line, and all that stuff is because my staff are healthier and at work more often. Period. One of my friends works for one of those big places that have lots of employees and no insurance or gym memberships. And his employees are always out sick. They're just not healthy people. And they cost him a lot of money in no-shows. I'd much rather my company make sure I have people to get stuff done by giving them every chance to be healthy. It's good business sense--I make a lot more money off my staff when they're here than when they're gone.

Ryan Neuhofel 9 years, 2 months ago

Thinking_Out_Load, I have no problem with employers taking an interest in the health of their workers (it only makes good business sense) - such as wellness plans, gym memberships, exercise time, etc. But, I do think it is detrimental for all of health care to be linked indirectly through employers - people (including the unemployed/self-employed) should not be punished with taxes if they choose to shop for insurance coverage on the free-market. This is one of the primary reasons we have 47 million "uninsured" citizens - I've heard a million times: "I can't get health insurance cause I lost my job" or ". . .my job doesn't offer it". With the mobility of the American workforce, changing jobs creates large issues with portability - and thus continuity of care with physicians. But, the larger issue remains ownership - if something is "given" (such is the perception) to you, we have an entitlement mentality to the goods/services and tend to spend your dollars less wisely. I think we can all agree that the cost of health insurance is too high for the benefit and service we receive - and we have become increasingly more employer-based in the past 40 years - coincidence? I think not. I also believe those with insurance are "over-insured". Short of bureaucrats rationing access to health care, we must make changes if costs are to decline.

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