Healthy employees

With no end in sight to escalating health care costs, a fundamental change of philosophy regarding employee health and employer-sponsored health insurance is in order.

Many employers are wondering how they will continue to pay for health care benefits. And many have reached the point where they have shifted as much of the costs to employees, in terms of deductibles and co-pays, as they think is reasonable.

What employers haven’t tried until very recently is motivating employees to take the best care they can of their health and providing resources at the work site that will help them do so. The fact is, people who are in good health ultimately use fewer health care resources, thereby slowing the inevitable increases in health care costs.

A concept whose time has come

Enter employee wellness programs, which represent a fundamental change in philosophy. The movement toward wellness in the workplace is still in its infancy, but the concept is gaining in popularity.

Insurance benefit managers are beginning to offer wellness programs to their business clients, and employers across the nation have instituted such programs, reporting returns of as much as $3 on every $1 invested in a wellness program.

Healthier employees are more productive and have lower rates of absenteeism, and they incur fewer health care costs. Equally important, healthier employees have a better quality of life and feel good, both about themselves and their work.

The essentials of a good program

A wellness program can be tailored to suit a company’s needs, and can include anything from internal newsletters and bulletin boards to exercise and disease management programs. However, certain elements increase the likelihood of a program’s success.

* Financial or other incentives to encourage participation

* Assurance that the privacy of employees’ personal health information will be safeguarded and the employer will not have access to it

* A workplace environment that includes ongoing education and support for making healthy changes

Incentives for participants can include reductions in health care contributions, time off work, gift certificates or other prizes. Additional incentives can be offered to those who reach certain health goals, such as losing weight or quitting smoking.

Helping employees understand their health status can be a good way to start a program. This can be done through the use of health risk-assessment questionnaires and free work-site screenings to determine blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose levels, weight and other health measurements.

For obvious ethical and legal reasons, test results must be strictly confidential. The questionnaires and screenings might be administered by an employer’s health insurance provider or broker, or by an independent health care contractor, and results reported back to the employer in aggregate form. For example, an employer may learn that 100 employees have diabetes but will not know who the 100 employees are.

Ongoing support for health improvement

As follow-up to the health assessment, employees can be encouraged to share results with their physicians. Those who are found to have chronic diseases or risk factors for disease can be offered assistance from a health coach or disease manager.

All employees can be offered encouragement and tools that will help them change unhealthy habits or maintain healthy behaviors they already have. For example, employees might be given access to a secure software program or Web site that allows them to review the results of their health assessment and set goals such as fitness or weight loss and track progress online.

Also essential is a plan to measure performance and determine whether the program is delivering results — whether employees are, in fact, getting healthier.

This focus on employee health and wellness as a solution to rising insurance premiums is gaining momentum. It has great potential to effect positive change — change in the direction of healthier lives and steadier health care costs.

Ronald J. Vance is vice president of sales and marketing for UPMC Health Plan. The Health Plan, with 440,000 members, is part of the University Pittsburgh Medical Center’s integrated medical delivery system and is the only provider-led health plan in Western Pennsylvania. Reach him at (412) 454-7642 or [email protected]