Your company’s well-being Featured

7:00pm EDT January 26, 2009
With employers now paying around 71 percent of their employees’ health care premiums1, health and wellness programs have gained increasing attention as employers look for new ways to contain costs.

Health and wellness programs focus on education to help change employee behaviors. By providing employees with information about living healthier, employers will create a healthier work force, and employees will learn to appreciate the value of medical services and how to spend health care dollars wisely.

In addition to education, effective health and wellness programs identify at-risk employees, as well as provide interventions that encourage lifestyle changes aimed at reducing risk.

“A lot of people think wellness programs are only for well people,” says Teresa Koenig, M.D., MBA, senior vice president and chief medical officer for SummaCare, Inc. “But wellness is also about how you manage the illness that you may already have.”

Smart Business spoke to Koenig and Julie Sich, MS, ATC, CSCS, health promotions coordinator at SummaCare, Inc., about the importance of employers picking the right wellness program.

Why should employers implement a wellness program now?

Employers should have implemented wellness programs years ago. With the cost of health care skyrocketing in this country, it is essential for people to understand the impact lifestyle choices and behavior have on their out-of-pocket costs.

Look at what is happening in our country with what we call ‘diabesity.’ Sixty-five percent of the population is over-weight, so the cost of health care will only continue to rise in the coming years. The illness burden for the next 10 to 15 years can be turned around and prevented, but it must be incorporated into not only our lifestyles, but into health benefits too.

As a country, we need to change our behaviors. Many existing conditions are due to preventable causes, such as diabetes, heart disease, smoking and alcohol abuse. Behavioral changes will help draw health care costs forward, but education and constant assessments both play a crucial role in making these changes occur. Identifying behaviors, suggesting healthier alternatives and educating employees about disease prevention are essential steps in creating a healthier population.

Have wellness programs been around long enough to show proof that they can lower premium rates?

While you can’t always relate return on investment directly to a wellness program, wellness programs that are incorporated into a company’s overall strategy and integrated into the corporate culture for years show a true trend constituting progress. It takes a long-term commitment to change and time to nurture a wellness program, but if employers increase awareness of health and wellness issues, provide support for individual self-management and promote a culture of good health they should expect to see a return on investment over time.

What should employers look for when selecting a wellness program?

Look for a wellness program that fits your needs. What works for a 2,000-employee site may not work for a 40-employee site, so look for a program with flexibility and scalability. Select strategies that work for your employee base, and make sure program expectations are clearly defined and communicated.

It’s also important to select a wellness program you can tailor to your environment, and look at it in the context of overall health costs. If a provider tries to sell you an asthma program, but no one in your population has asthma, how does that save you money?

Before implementing a wellness program, make sure it is a priority in the company from the top down. Wellness programs aren’t successful with senior management buy-in only — supervisors and managers need to be involved too.

How important is it for employees to understand the way wellness programs work?

It is critical for employers to engage their employees in wellness programs, as well as educate them on all aspects of the programs. In order to move from a disease-based system to a wellness system, employees have to be informed and active participants to understanding what drives wellness and diseases.

1 Health Insurance Benefits, March 2008. U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics.

TERESA KOENIG, M.D., MBA, is senior vice president and chief medical officer for SummaCare. Reach her at koenigt@summacare.com. JULIE SICH, MS, ATC, CSCS, is the health promotions coordinator for SummaCare. Reach her at sichj@summacare.com. SummaCare, Inc., a provider-owned health plan located in Akron, Ohio, services members in an 18 county service area through a network of over 7,000 providers and many top hospitals.