Employees save money, get healthy with wellness programs
05/06/2014 12:00 AM
08/08/2014 10:24 AM
When Eric Gustafson became director of the Derby Public Library in 2011 and eligible for the city’s insurance plan, he got involved in the city’s incentive-based employee wellness program to save money on his insurance premiums.
Three years later, he’s reaping more than just a financial benefit, he said. He’s lost about 40 pounds, no longer has high blood pressure, and he’s even earning some extra days off.
“I’m saving money, I’m healthier and I’m more exercise conscious,” he said. “I’m in the best shape I’ve been since probably my freshman year of college,” said the 34-year-old Gustafson.
A former cross country athlete at McPherson High School, Gustafson is back to running every day and is prepping for an upcoming 200-mile bike ride.
Many employers in the Wichita area and throughout the country are trying to reduce their insurance costs and create healthier workers by offering incentive-based health and wellness programs, like the one Gustafson is involved in. And even more employers are expected to look into providing wellness programs.
Wellness programs on the rise
According to a 2014 study by Fidelity Investments and the National Business Group on Health, 95 percent of corporate employers plan to offer some kind of health improvement program for their employees, and the percentage of companies offering incentives to participate has increased from 57 percent in 2009 to 74 percent in 2014.
Elizabeth Ablah, an associate professor in preventative medicine and public health at the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita, welcomes the efforts.
As part of the WorkWell KS program, she’s been encouraging Kansas businesses to incorporate wellness benefits as part of their corporate culture for the past several years.
“We want them to treat health and wellness like any other part of their business that they are accountable for,” Ablah said.
“It can make a difference in the bottom line,” she said, noting that healthier employees can mean less absenteeism, increased productivity and lower health care costs.
There are various types of wellness programs, with many offering some type of financial incentives, according to national reports. Some programs involve health-risk assessments such as biometric screenings; action-based activities such as participating in a wellness challenge or doing a preventative screening; or progress-based incentives, such as hitting the healthy range for cholesterol.
At Intrust Bank, the City of Derby and USD 259, wellness program participation rates are high, according to human resources professionals with those employers.
In Derby, 93 percent of the employees on the city’s insurance program participate in the wellness program to earn discounts on their insurance premiums, said Jenny Turner, the city’s HR director. The city of Derby has a three-tier incentive program, based on participation in educational, prevention, fitness and healthy living activities. Spouses and children can also earn participation points for insurance premium savings.
Based on participation points, employees get an additional incentive of converting unused sick days to wellness days. Gustafson, the library director, for example, takes advantage of many of the wellness program’s activities, earning him the top platinum tier of participation. The other two tiers are gold and silver.
With his platinum status, Gustafson has earned a 9 percent savings on his insurance and the conversion of two sick days to wellness days. Gold tier participants earn a a 6 percent savings and a one-day conversion, while silver tier employees earn a 4 percent savings, said Turner.
Employees who don’t take the city’s insurance plan can still take advantage of free biometric screenings and program activities to earn points toward sick day conversions, Turner said.
At Intrust, more than 600 of its 880 employees in three states do at least a biometric and health risk assessment, said Jill Beckman, division director of Intrust’s People Services.
Employees who do that “first carrot” in the wellness program, Beckman said, get an insurance discount of $17 a month, which is an annual savings of $204. Employees who decline the company’s insurance but still do the assessment get $204 in cash.
Through the Intrust program, employees can do several wellness challenges that offer not only participation points but various prizes for winning challenges, such as a free YMCA membership or cash rewards.
Free flu shots, free smoking cessation programs and onsite fitness classes at the downtown corporate Wichita location are also part of the Intrust program’s perks.
Employees who earn 10,000 points annually earn a wellness day, an incentive that’s now in its fourth year. Last year, 356, or about 40 percent, Intrust employees, earned that extra day off, Beckman said.
Within USD 259, the program reward is kept simpler: Earn a total of 100 points for behaviors such as not using tobacco, having healthy cholesterol and blood pressure levels, going to the gym three times a week and getting preventative screenings and you get an insurance premium waiver.
About 73 percent of the 6,520 employees on the school district’s insurance plan have earned insurance premium waivers, a savings of about $240 a year for each employee, said Kelly Rundell, director of employee benefits and insurance management.
Some reports on wellness programs have raised concerns about privacy and perceived penalties for not participating.
HR professionals and benefits consultants say participation is voluntary and non-participation is a choice to not take advantage of incentives offered.
“If you don’t participate in the wellness program, the nature of that decision is to pay higher insurance premiums,” said Turner, of the city of Derby.
Access to employee health information varies, based on how a program is managed. At Intrust, for example, HR officials receive a report from the vendor doing the health screenings. The report doesn’t identify individual employees, but provides percentages about employees’ overall well-being. With that information, bank officials said, staff can create programs that address topics that will make the most difference to their employees, such as managing weight or decreasing cholesterol.
If an employer does have access to an employee’s health information, federal guidelines, such as medical privacy laws and the Americans with Disabilities Act, prevent an employer from using that information against an employee, say HR professionals.
A 2012 study by the Rand Corp. for the U.S. government concluded that employee wellness programs can make a difference in reducing health risk factors and increasing healthy behaviors. It said further study was needed on several aspects of wellness programs, such as long-term effects, what features are most beneficial, the effects of financial incentives and whether they actually save employers money.
Intrust employee Marianne Slagle, 56, said she is healthier because of participation in wellness programming.
Slagle, a bank card clerk, said she lost 53 pounds and got off the high blood pressure medication she’d taken for years. She remembers being told she was obese at her first screening.
“I didn’t think I was that big,” said Slagle, who has earned a wellness day every year it’s been offered. “Nobody had told me that before so that got my attention.”
After that screening, she started exercising more, taking walks during her breaks and joined a Weight Watchers at Work program, which is now defunct.
“I feel better than I have in a long time,” Slagle said.
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