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Businesses helping employees to become better health consumers

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GINA R. HEINE
August 12, 2008
— It's not rocket science: If you're healthy, you're probably going to use less health care.

That's why more local employers want to keep their employees healthy to offset double-digit health insurance increases.


"People who make healthier choices are cheaper to insure," said John Becker, Rock County's director of human resources.


The result: health risk assessments and wellness programs at work.


Or the shining local example: an on-site workout facility and clinic at Lab Safety Supply in Janesville.


"I think it's the only real alternative for employers as a whole," Becker said. "The alternatives are either cutting benefits or shifting more responsibility to the employees."


That puts working families in a tough situation, he said.


"The answer—until there's a national solution—is going to be becoming more responsible consumers," he said.


The average health insurance premium in 2007—employer and employee share combined—was $4,250 to $4,499 for single coverage and $12,000 to $12,499 for family coverage, according to a 2007 employer health care benefits survey in Milwaukee.


Setting an example

Need a break from work? Take a jog on the treadmill down the hall.


Feel like you're getting the flu? Stop in at the on-site clinic.


Back pains distracting you from work? Get your back adjusted by the chiropractor.


Those are just a few of the benefits that employees of Lab Safety Supply in Janesville receive at their on-site wellness and fitness centers.


Lab Safety has twice received the top award for workplace wellness through the Wellness Councils of America. The company provides on its site a personal trainer, a chiropractor, a massage therapist, physical/occupational therapy, a clinic contracted through Dean Health System for needs similar to those treated at urgent care, free sports physicals for children of employees, fitness and nutritional counseling and health risk assessments.


Aside from keeping the company's health care costs below the national average, the company's commitment to wellness has provided benefits that include low turnover and absenteeism rates, increased productivity and morale and appreciative employees who regularly give positive feedback, said Jan Bruss, wellness supervisor and a registered nurse.


"After a year, it was so in-your-face evidence that we had no question about continuing to move forward," she said.


"What we put into it initially has more than paid back in six months for reduced routine services," said Tim Markus, human resources manager. "It was that quick."


Employees make 5,500 annual visits to the free on-site clinic.


Plenty of resources are available through the Wellness Councils of America for companies looking to start similar plans, Bruss said. Lab Safety leaders have spoken nationally about their program.


"The scariest thing for everyone is not knowing where to start," she said. "Starting anywhere is better than not starting at all."


Company organizers are the key, Markus said, because everyone has to be on board with the idea and dedicated for it to succeed.


In the next few years, businesses will realize how much of a necessity it is to create such programs and help employees become better health consumers, Markus said.


"It's no longer a luxury," he said. "It's becoming a competitive advantage."


Smaller scale

Some employers are finding benefits without going to such lengths as Lab Safety.


Janesville's Hufcor did health risk assessments periodically over the last 15 years but started a formal program in 2007.


"Our insurance costs continue to go in double-digit increases," said Pat Whitmore, vice president of human resources.


The company, which has 500 employees nationwide and 320 in Janesville, will spend a "few hundred thousand" dollars over three years for its wellness program, Whitmore said.


"But we project return on investment by a minimum of three to one," she said.


More than 350 employees and spouses participated in the health risk assessments and can work toward individual health goals set by the provider to receive $240 toward their health insurance for next year, she said.


The program is not mandatory yet, but employees were paid $50 to participate, and spouses received $25 gift certificates.


"We've tried to find ways to help our people feel better. If they feel better, they're going to work better," Whitmore said.


The company has sponsored on-site wellness classes such as body toning, yoga and a nutritionist. In the nutritionist's first six weeks of working with eight people on weight loss, the group lost more than 100 pounds combined, Whitmore said.


Not just private

Wellness initiatives are expanding into the public sector, too.


More than 600 Rock County employees and spouses took health risk assessments in February as part of a new wellness/preventive care plan adopted so far by non-union employees and members of four of the county's 10 unions, Becker said.


Mandatory annual health risk assessments will be required for those employees taking the county's health insurance plan, he said. Ten percent of premiums also will be tied to an employee's participation in wellness activities starting next year.


While the county always has paid 100 percent of employees' premiums, that will change to 90 percent in 2010, and employees will have to gain the other 10 percent by earning points in wellness participation during the previous year, Becker said.


Early detection

Employers save money if they are diagnosed early, for example, with diabetes and can treat the disease rather than paying for amputations down the road, Becker said. The same is true for paying for a colonoscopy to intervene before colon cancer develops, he said.


"It's saving tens of thousands of dollars," he said. "We're adding wellness benefits in exchange for responsibility on the part of employees."


Many health issues surfaced as a result of the county's 607 assessments, Becker said. Consider what people didn't realize they had:


-- 12 people with anemia.


-- One with a bleeding disorder.


-- Nine with diabetes.


-- Seven with high blood pressure.


-- 38 with high cholesterol.


-- One with kidney disease.


-- 26 with potential liver disease.


-- One likely with prostate cancer.


-- 19 with a thyroid disorder.


"All (are) people who did not know that," Becker said.


Results of the assessments remain anonymous to the employer.


"The data is purely for the employee," Becker said. "That's for them to decide what they want to do to follow up."


What to expect

A recent survey found 27 percent of Milwaukee businesses have implemented employee wellness plans, said Jessica Raddemann, executive director of the Wisconsin affiliate of the Wellness Councils of America.


The state council is a nonprofit organization that serves more than 400 Wisconsin employers in designing wellness programs that serve more than 450,000 employees.


The Wellness Council recommends employers looking to start results-oriented plans to spend between $100 and $150 per employee annually, Raddemann said.


Returns on investment are $3 or more for every $1 invested, she said.


"It's not going to happen overnight," she said. "Employers should estimate two to three years turnaround time to see a return on investment."


Those returns won't be seen just in health care costs but in lower absentee rates, improved morale and productivity.


"We know health promotion makes good business sense," Raddemann said. "Employers are realizing employees' health is an investment in the bottom line."



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