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Well-designed employee wellness programs pay off

Padma GadepallyPoor employee health costs money. Absenteeism, disability and reduced work output all take a toll, personally and professionally. In fact, the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion estimates that productivity losses related to personal and family health problems cost U.S. employers $1,685 per employee per year, or $225.8 billion annually.

Worryingly, the burden of chronic disease and the onset of chronic conditions such as obesity and hypertension have shifted to young people who are still participating in the U.S labor market.

To counter this trend, employers in Idaho and across the nation are adopting health promotion and disease prevention strategies. They aim to take advantage of their access to employees at an age where interventions can change employee behaviors and their long-term health.

Workplace wellness programs can range from narrow offerings, such as free gym memberships, to comprehensive counseling and lifestyle management interventions.

The National Representative Employer Survey found recently that approximately half of U.S. employers with 50 or more employees offer wellness promotion initiatives. Seventy-five percent of workers in organizations with 50 or more employees are offered some type of wellness program.

In my experience, bringing about sustained and positive health behavior change in individuals is a challenging task that is easier said than done. When considering a carrot-and-stick approach, employers might get a better return on their investment by focusing more on incentivizing employees to adopt healthy behavior, diet and/or lifestyle changes with specific, measurable goals instead of penalizing them. Financial incentives to prompt healthy behaviors, such as linking employee cost-sharing incentives to health coverage for program participation or giving workers financial rewards for attaining health goals, are some promising strategies.

Many local companies have taken strong steps toward employee wellness and many more are actively contemplating employee wellness promotion initiatives. Healthy U, an Employee Assistance Program at St. Luke’s in Boise, provides free, professional, confidential counseling to employees and eligible dependents. Participating and meeting the targets outlined in Healthy U provides St. Luke’s employees an opportunity to earn up to $750 in incentives and health plan premium reductions. Employees who use tobacco are only eligible for the enrollment incentive for $130.

Blue Cross of Idaho, which had launched its first Corporate Wellness Challenge in 2008, makes the challenge available for free to groups of 40 or more contracts (employees who have Blue Cross insurance through their employer). The challenge is designed to encourage employees to participate in getting preventive care (pap smears, mammograms, flu shots and colorectal screening) and take an online health assessment.

Hewlett-Packard Boise, apart from its on-site fitness center, offers its employees annual health assessments with follow-up by a personal health adviser, and rewards participation with a credit toward health insurance premiums.

Section 2705(j) of the Public Health Service Act, as amended by the Affordable Care Act, raises the allowable value of wellness incentives provided through employment-based group health coverage from 20 percent to 30 percent of the cost of coverage in 2014. Rewards can be increased to up to 50 percent of the cost of coverage, if determined to be appropriate.

Section 2713 of the Public Health Service Act requires non-grandfathered group health plans to cover a series of recommended preventive services without imposing cost-sharing, including diet counseling for adults at higher risk for chronic disease, cholesterol screening for adults of certain ages or at higher risk, and blood pressure screening. Tobacco-use screening and cessation interventions for smokers are also included in the recommendations.

For a wellness program to work, communication with employees is critical. So is support from leadership. Employers will see more success if they create a culture of wellness by supporting healthy habits across the organization, if they get company leaders involved as active participants and supporters, and if they offer on-site activities that encourage healthy lifestyles.

Given the time-lapse between health risks and development of manifest chronic diseases, a long follow-up period would be required to fully capture the effect of worksite wellness programs on health outcomes and costs. A wellness program aimed at keeping employees healthy is a key long-term human asset management strategy. It can significantly benefit employers, employees, their families and communities.

The most successful company programs support a healthy work/life balance, educate employees to be smart and thrifty health care consumers, and avoid a one-size-fits-all approach.

Padma Gadepally is a physician and a public health professional in Boise. She can be reached at padmaag@yahoo.com. 

About Padma Gadepally