Wellness at work: How community wellness programs can help employees save on health care costs

Monday, June 20, 2011
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In the fall of 2010, the Sikeston Area Chamber of Commerce sponsored its first-ever attempt at helping employees of local businesses, large and small, to become healthier. The result: a participation rate four times higher than executive director Missy's Marshall's expectations.

"We ended up with over 400 people signed up," Marshall says. "If we had 100, we would have been happy."

Get Fit Sikeston is similar to Shape Up Cape, the program led by the Cape Girardeau Area Chamber of Commerce, , now in its 10th year. While Get Fit Sikeston is a workplace fitness competition, there are other areas besides physical activity where teams can earn points, including nutrition and community information. The program also encourages participation in community events, such as fundraisers, charity walks and bike rides. Get Fit Sikeston includes a free check of blood pressure, weight and body mass index before the start of the program, and an optional charge for lipid panel and glucose screenings.

Marshall says the decision to offer the program was an experiment: Could the popularity of Sikeston's biennial corporate games be transferred to an experience where businesses would consider implementing wellness programs for employees? The chamber approached the program as a chance to give a learning opportunity to each individual, while also asking employers to work with employees to keep a program going.

"Employers are having to deal with a lighter work force and need employees to be healthy," Marshall says. "A healthier, more productive work force can lower health care costs."

Marshall says the health of a community and its work force is an economic driver, as businesses wanting to relocate look at all demographics.

"A population that continues to decline in health is in trouble," says Marshall. Therefore, keeping up interest in wellness programs and healthy employees is critical to success of the region's business environment, she says.

Sikeston city employees participated in the program, and several lost weight, quit smoking and altered their lifestyles to be healthier, says Doug Friend, Sikeston city manager. He says the program also helped staff by building teamwork skills and letting employees get to know others from different departments. Teams from Missouri Delta Medical Center, New Wave Communications and the public school district also found success with the program, says Marshall.

Lowering employees' health care costs is also a goal of the Healthy Rewards program at Saint Francis Medical Center, says Sandy Duncan, manager of Fitness Plus. With this employee wellness program, employees get annual lab work, fitness testing, weight and blood pressure checks, flexibility tests and other health screenings.

Duncan says participation can equal a significant decrease in insurance costs to employees, as they use earned points to receive vouchers that can be applied to health insurance premiums or medical bills. The program's participation rate has doubled since 2009 to include 1,400 employees. Duncan says while the program does come at a significant expense to the company, it is well worth it. During annual screenings, one employee's prostate blood test revealed cancer. If he hadn't been screened, he wouldn't have known, Duncan says.

SoutheastHEALTH offers a similar program to its employees, including cholesterol and blood pressure screenings, smoking cessation, and information about stress reduction. SoutheastHEALTH, Saint Francis and Southeast Missouri State University have also shown some local businesses, such as Rent One and Buzzi Unicem USA's alternative fuels division, how to duplicate a large wellness program on a smaller scale. The Cape Girardeau Area Chamber of Commerce's WorkWell series is aimed at helping more companies begin their own workplace wellness programs. Chamber CEO John Mehner says the best way to have an effect on health care costs is on the wellness end, so the chamber is committed to promoting programs in the workplace.

Jason Bandermann, referral services manager at Saint Francis and chair of the chamber's health and human services committee, says WorkWell gives business owners and managers the tools to get started by offering instructional sessions on implementing a program; the potential rewards; and services the hospitals can bring to the company. Should a business decide to begin a program with hospital services, the $50 to $70 cost per employee can include lab testing, health screenings, a wellness profile, individual result reports for employees and an executive summary for the company.

"It helps them target their education throughout the year by showing, for example, if their employees need information about how to avoid diabetes more than heart disease," says Bandermann. The series also provides information to help companies change the culture in their workplace for the better, such as by adding healthier varieties to vending machines.

WorkWell won't decrease the cost of health insurance to employees, Bandermann says, but their use of a program could stop insurance increases by 15 to 20 percent, simply because employees educated on disease prevention and good health are likely to be healthier and not need specialized care.

"The goal is not to visit," Bandermann says. "That's where the savings are. You can't lower the cost of health care, but you can limit your exposure."

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