David Zick

Tuesday, 01 March 2011 14:26

Keep sickness at bay

Today, more than ever before, employers are seeking an effective means of controlling growing health care expenses. Wellness programs allow employers to provide hands-on programs that benefit the overall health of their employees. These programs improve the lives of participants because they eliminate high-health-risk lifestyles.

According to many studies, more than 70 percent of all health care spending in the U.S. goes toward the treatment of chronic and preventable diseases. By offering employees the opportunity to assess and improve their health, employers can reduce their employees’ health problems and the skyrocketing costs of treating preventable conditions.

Corporate wellness programs are not new, but the model has drastically changed. Once viewed as an employee perk, wellness was considered offering free clinic screenings or giving away prizes to employees who had their blood pressure checked during their lunch hour. Employee participation was minimal as was the impact on the employer’s rising health care costs.

These types of programs — which simply offered already health-conscious employees a chance to further manage their health — are out. Today, a fully integrated wellness structure where employees are encouraged to take accountability is in. Old wellness programs were preaching to the choir, in that already healthy employees were the only ones participating. Today, employers are now realizing that positive health habits can be garnered through creative programs that engage all employees.

A benefit of implementing an incentive-based wellness program is its ability to transform the idea of health maintenance into something meaningful. Dr. Dee Edington, director of the Health Management Research Center at the University of Michigan, found that the average amount of health care spending for low-health-risk workers aged 35 to 44 in 2001 was $1,523. Workers who did not have their health screened and assessed via a wellness program spent — on average — $2,100, while employees who were labeled “high risk” spent approximately $4,530.

Employees also recognize the benefits of today’s wellness programs. Rather than finding resistance to these programs, many companies have seen enthusiastic buy-in; some companies have even seen employees ask for spousal participation. Because wellness programs are now viewed in a more positive light than ever before, companies nationwide are making the decision to integrate such programs within their employee benefits packages.

Companies we work with, both in Michigan and nationally, see an 85 to 95 percent participation rate. On average, when our clients implement wellness initiatives, about 75 percent of them are experiencing flat or negative trending in their health care costs, while the remaining 25 percent have seen cost increases of less than 10 percent. Those that saw increases typically had more employees with more than two health risks, and they expect their costs will continue to improve as their employees work to become healthier.

Companies interested in developing and implementing a wellness program are advised to discuss the option with a benefits specialist to gauge and understand how to fully incorporate wellness into their overall benefit design.

Because wellness programs can be as diverse as employees, there isn’t just one way to implement them. Success is dependent upon changing corporate culture to support and encourage employees to be healthy; companies that develop policies and procedures that support a healthier staff can assist employees with taking wellness into their own hands. Overall, creating an environment that highlights the benefits of adhering to a healthier lifestyle will, in turn, help your company achieve results. <<

David Zick is the president of Michigan-based Group Associates Inc., a nationwide leader in proprietary benefit management solutions, offering companies resources to meet their benefit administration and brokerage needs. For information, please visit www.groupassociates.com or call (248) 593-2000.