Wellness programs become integral to cost savings

December 1, 2011

To fight the rising cost of healthcare, some companies are cutting back but, it doesn't help employees become healthier.

The poor health status of many American workers costs the economy an estimated $153 billion in lost productivity-much of it attributable to obesity and chronic illnesses. Those who are overweight and also have one or two chronic conditions have three times as many unhealthy days per month, leading to lost work time and "presenteeism," or unproductive workdays.

A fully integrated workplace wellness program, on the other hand, can actually move the needle on employee health and morale and eventually the employer's healthcare expenses. Such programs embrace a wide array of tools to change employee behaviors and attitudes, ranging from nutrition, exercise and weight control, to free wellness visits, one-on-one chronic disease coaching, and smoking-cessation incentives.

At Health Care Services Corporation (HCSC)-owner and operator of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico-we've adopted what we think are best-in-class wellness programs for our own employees and our customers. And we've employed resources and financial incentives to make sure employees know we're serious. In addition to tying wellness to annual bonuses, employees can earn real money (up to $200 a year) for taking an annual wellness exam and logging their physical activity on a Web site, for example.

Our fitness centers have state of the art equipment and classes and are offered at a discount. In addition, we offer discount programs for gym memberships for employees and members across the country. And our onsite cafeteria services' FIT meals are guaranteed to be moderate in calories, cholesterol and fat.

PROOF IN THE RESULTS

Employees at HCSC have collectively lost 20 tons of weight so far in 2011. Shrona Carter, for example, a customer advocate specialist with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas, lost 67 pounds in 16 months. And Kim Miller, an accounting clerk with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Oklahoma, reduced her body fat by 6%, dropped her cholesterol and blood sugar by 12 points, and was able stop taking certain medications with better control of her health.

We set that 20-ton weight-loss goal for 2011 with the tools in place to assist our employees in achieving results. More than 16,000 employees lost those 20 tons-four months ahead of schedule-so now we've raised the bar to 30 tons.

Additionally, we altered our premium structure to financially penalize those employees who choose to smoke. At the same time, we instituted a smoking cessation program, which achieved a 40% quit rate. The number of employees who smoke dropped 8%, bringing an estimated $918,836 in health coverage claim cost savings. Such positive results prove that wellness works.

Paul B. Handel, M.D., is senior vice president and enterprise chief medical officer, Health Care Service Corporation