Thursday, 06 September 2012 11:21

Wellness Credits, What are they - Really?

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) awarded $372 million to 44 various communities to help with the efforts of reducing obesity, smoking, increase physical activity and improve nutrition (HHS.gov, 3/19/10). It is uncertain if this American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 has impacted the communities; and when the government grants were researched these amounts were earmarked for senior citizens. Today another award was released for 2012.

Employer groups are hearing from various sources the importance of wellness, says Danone Simpson, founder and CEO of Montage Insurance Solutions. Carriers are offering to assist with wellness efforts and many add as much as $44 in cost per year to the premiums. For larger employers Kaiser will send a bus to park outside workplaces testing employees for high cholesterol or strokes for a fee. “High cholesterol is one of the major risk factors leading to heart disease, heart attack and stroke. 2,200 Americans die of cardiovascular disease each day” (American Heart Association, www.heart.org).

Lifestyle changes are needed and yet Americans are sitting in front of computers all day urged to be more physically active. The balance is falling on the employers’ shoulders who know if they have more than 50 employees they are now required to pay for medical insurance or be fined $2,000 per employee per year. So the Human Resources Departments are asked to create wellness programs to keep premium costs down. Pooled groups will have to have a community effort in order to accomplish this goal unless they are planning to grow into a larger employer who has control over their premium costs.

Yet, the buzz on the street is wellness. Today, August 29, 2012, the Obama administration announced, “The Public Health Training Centers (PHTC) is to improve the Nation’s public health system by strengthening the technical, scientific, managerial, and leadership competence of the current future public health workforce” (http://bhpr.hrsa.gov/grants/publichealth/phtc.html). Approximately 36 U.S. Government Universities have been given a grant worth an average of $650,106 in financial assistance to promote public health training for the third year in a row.

So what does this mean for employers? We are not sure yet. “Employer wellness incentive programs take a variety of forms, ranging from employer-provided direct incentives, such as pedometers or discounted health club memberships (participation only programs) to group health plan incentives that link healthcare discounts to meeting certain health targets, such as cholesterol or blood pressure standards (standard-based programs). The codified support for employer wellness programs in the PPACA demonstrates Congress’s intent to encourage these programs and, thus, enhance and encourage public wellness. However, whether offered as part of a health plan program subject to HIPAA or the PPACA extension, or as a separate employer program or policy not subject to HIPAA or the PPACA, wellness programs are still generally bound by federal, state and local nondiscrimination and privacy laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”); Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (“GINA”); Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended (“Title VII”); and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Employers contemplating penalty or reward wellness programs should consider that few, if any, cases have addressed the application of these nondiscrimination laws to the wellness program penalty and reward provisions” (Hall, 2012, gshllp.com).

The only reimbursements are from employers to employees who participate in the employer sponsored programs. Today the employer is allowed to reimburse the employee a portion of their premium dollars by up to 20% of the cost of employee-only coverage and in 2014 that amount goes up to 30%; however this costs the employer more, while many are struggling to pay their portion of the premiums.

So what can an employer do? Employers need to make sure their broker is providing some of these services to their employees in a compliant way on a volunteer basis. And make sure their program is compliant or it can be deemed discriminatory in a court of law, “Despite PPACA’s clear legislative support for wellness efforts, employers fashioning penalty and reward wellness programs must consider nondiscrimination and privacy implications of such provisions” (Hall, 2012, gshllp.com).

Unraveling the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“PPACA”) is a full time job and the penalties and compliance landmines are plenty. Overtaxed HR departments need brokers who are working 24/7 to guard the employees and employer from tax burdens and who offer employee wellness incentives, since the government is not.

Danone Simpson is the founder and CEO at Montage Insurance Solutions. Reach her at (818) 676-0044 or danone@montageinsurance.com.

Insights Business Insurance brought to you by Montage Insurance Solutions.

Published in Los Angeles

Most employers know that having healthy employees can help lower health care costs, but a healthy population can have far greater benefits for your company.

Those benefits can be so great that some employers are not only encouraging healthy behaviors, they are demanding them as a condition of employment, says Michael F. Campbell, chief wellness officer at Neace Lukens.

“There is a general consensus that health care costs are driving the wellness movement,” says Campbell. “But a recent study revealed that the benefits in improved productivity and presenteeism from wellness programs were financially a far greater advantage than the decrease in health care costs. Lost productivity due to poor health, chronic conditions and poor lifestyle created a far greater impact.”

Smart Business spoke with Campbell about steps you can take to improve the health — and productivity — of your employees.

If an employer wants its employees to be healthier, where does it start?

You have to start at the top. If the leader of the company is unwilling to lead in this endeavor as they would lead in their business endeavors, it will fail. That’s the only way you are going to have an impact on the culture.

For example, our CEO decided two years ago that something had to change. He began to change his lifestyle, his activities, his eating and drinking habits, and began communicating those changes to the employees.

You may get a lot of negative feedback from the population when you’re requiring people to do certain things, but if the leader is saying, ‘Look, face it, this is here to stay,’ having that repetitious message in place makes a big difference. At companies of all sizes, the ones that succeed with wellness programs are the ones in which the leader steps up to the plate and becomes a living example of what they’re asking people to do.

What kinds of things can employers incorporate into wellness programs?

You can encourage people to get annual physicals, whether they are covered on your health plan or not. If everyone is not on the health plan, don’t attach incentives to the plan because you are after your entire population.

You can also ask employees to participate in a nutrition program. That doesn’t mean telling them how to eat; it simply means that they have to participate in an assessment that will tell them what their nutrition prescription is. You can also persuade everyone to participate in quarterly seminars on nutrition.

For example, we are going to support the program for employees to use pedometers. That doesn’t mean they have to walk a certain number of steps each day, not yet, but they do have to wear them. We suggest a goal and tell them what the recommendations are. It’s very unobtrusive and we simply say to them, we need you to wear this.

This approach is not an outcomes-based program yet; it’s a participation-based approach.

How can employers overcome employee resistance?

Take, for example, a hospital that wanted to implement a tobacco-free workplace policy. It announced it was going to charge those who did not kick the habit, and it did a very poor job of rolling it out, a very poor job of communicating, a very poor job of educating people, and the turnaround time from announcement to quit date was way too short. As a result, it had a rebellion.

Compare that with employers who have done it correctly. They start 18 months in advance, they make a case for the initiative, they explain to employees why they are so interested in making it happen, and the pros and cons of the program. And they say to employees, way in advance, ‘Get ready. The day is coming when we are going to issue a policy that you will not be able to use tobacco on the premises, at any time. We’re not going to do this for a year and a half yet, and in the meantime, for those who do use tobacco, we have this incredible program that we’re going to bring to the table to help you quit.’

Employers who do that have no problems. Nobody quits, there is no rebellion; it just happens. But if you wait until the objections come, and you don’t answer all of their questions ahead of time and explain thoroughly why you’re doing this, you’re going to have problems.

What would you say to employers who say they can’t afford the investment into wellness?

Think of it along the lines of safety. If you ask a factory manager what kind of money that person is investing in safety programs, it’s amazing relative to the amount of money that’s involved in that area. It’s so incredibly disproportionate to health care cost. There are signs all over the place, and everyone knows what they should and shouldn’t be doing when it comes to safety.

But when it comes to health plan costs, which are astronomical when compared to their exposure financially, what are they doing there? There is a huge value to the investment for wellness.

Some employers may also think that the health of their employees is none of their business.

Yes, it is your business. And you’d better make it your business, or you are going to be out of business.

Michael F. Campbell is chief wellness officer at Neace Lukens. Reach him at (317) 595-7349 or mike.campbell@neacelukens.com.

Published in Cleveland

Did you know that tobacco use in the United States costs an estimated $197 billion a year in lost productivity and health care costs? Add to that second-hand smoke, which costs an additional $10 billion in losses. Tobacco use contributes to one of every five deaths, and smokers die an average of 13 years earlier than nonsmokers.

“While it’s not easy to quit, it is possible to do so. And employers can help,” says Julie Sich, health promotions coordinator for SummaCare Inc.

“Both the employer and employee can benefit when the employer helps the employee who wants to quit,” says Sich. “Employees who quit can significantly improve their health and quality of life. Employers benefit by spending less on tobacco-related illnesses and gaining productivity in the work place.”

Smart Business spoke with Sich about how to provide the tools to help your employees quit smoking.

Why should employers be concerned about employees who smoke?

Worldwide, an estimated five million people will die this year as a result of smoking. In the U.S., tobacco use is responsible for an estimated one in five deaths, or about 443,000 deaths per year. This creates a huge impact on businesses and the health care system.

In addition, for every death that results from smoking, an additional 20 people suffer from at least one serious illness related to smoking, including smoking bronchitis, heart disease, stroke, cancer and lung disease. People who suffer from those diseases are not as productive and can cause substantial increases in health insurance premiums.

With an estimated 46.6 million smokers in the U.S. — 20.6 percent of the adult population — this can have a significant impact on the productivity of the country’s employers.

How do employees who smoke cost their employers money?

The first way smokers cost employers more money is obviously an increased use of health care, which can drive up premiums, but there are other ways that may not be as obvious. For example, if employees are taking four 10-minute smoking breaks each day, they are working one full month less each year than employees who aren’t taking comparable breaks. Each employee who smokes costs an employer an average of $1,897 per year in lost productivity as a result of smoking breaks and by being absent an average of two days more per year than their nonsmoking counterparts. In addition, workers’ compensation costs for nonsmokers average $176, while costs for smokers are more than 12 times that, at $2,189.

How can employers encourage employees to quit?

Many employees already want to quit smoking but don’t know where to turn. Studies show that approximately 70 percent of smokers want to quit, and, in 2008, about 45 percent of smokers attempted to do so. With that in mind, it may be easier than employers think to help people quit, as the majority of smokers already have the desire to stop.

Begin by surveying employees to identify the amount of interest in quitting, and find out what resources are available to help you decide on the approach you wish to take. Some employers choose to minimize their involvement and simply steer employees to information or community programs that could help. Others may choose to make some smoking cessation resources available themselves.

Finally, companies may choose to offer smoking cessation benefits such as therapy and individual and group counseling. When it comes to smoking cessation, one size does not fit all. People respond differently to different methods, and a program that offers both a counseling and coaching component can help a smoker develop a cessation strategy that works best for that individual.

Pairing counseling with nicotine replacement therapies and medications is even more effective, and employers who provide low- or no-cost access to medication can greatly increase their employees’ rate of success.

By providing support to help smokers quit, employers send the message that they care about their employees and want them to be healthy. Employees should also be reassured that the employer has their best interests at heart and is not trying to stigmatize them by encouraging them to quit.

How can employers provide incentives for employees to quit?

Small incentives can be effective in helping employees to quit. For example, those who succeed — or even those who complete a program but fail to quit — can be rewarded with lower health insurance and/or life insurance premiums or cash in a flexible spending account to pay for medication to aid in quitting. Also, employers can pair quitting smoking with other health and wellness programs, making it just one part of a healthy lifestyle.

Employers should encourage a supportive workplace. If smokers are stigmatized, they are less likely to succeed. Encourage your nonsmoking employees to offer support to those who are trying to quit.

Can banning smoking on company property be an effective step to helping employees quit?

Making it more difficult for employees to smoke during the workday may provide an incentive for some, although not all, employees to quit. However, banning smoking on your property can have additional benefits, including improved morale among nonsmokers, reduced liability from lawsuits for exposure to second-hand smoke, better air quality around the building, a better image for visitors and lower building maintenance fees.

Breaking an addiction to nicotine is not easy, but employers are in a great position to encourage and help their employees quit. Research shows that paying to help an employee quit smoking provides a great return on investment in lower health care costs, lower workers’ comp costs, increased productivity and fewer days of missed work.

Julie Sich is health promotions coordinator for SummaCare Inc. Reach her at (330) 996-8779 or sichj@summacare.com.

Published in Akron/Canton

While politicians and pundits continue to debate the future of health care reform, there is progress. Extending health coverage to age 26 for many young people and eliminating barriers for pre-existing conditions are beginning to show positive effects. Many employers adding or enhancing their wellness activities are lessening the increase in benefit costs.

Smart Business learned more from Barry Arbuckle, Ph.D., the president and CEO of MemorialCare Health System, about how businesses can implement changes to have a real effect on health care costs.

Are prevention and wellness good investments?

The work force is as critical to your bottom line as the quality of products and services. Costs of workers at high risk for chronic conditions are three times that of healthy employees. Healthier lifestyle programs in the state could save $1.7 billion annually, according to California Endowment. Research shows that two-thirds of the nation’s work force is overweight, and each overweight employee costs businesses an additional $500 to $2,500 in medical expenses and work loss. Wellness activities can save $1.49 to $4.91 for every dollar spent, reduce absences 30 percent and help recruit, retain and increase productivity. It can be as simple and relatively inexpensive as offering pedometers, walking programs and sessions on achieving better health.

How has MemorialCare’s Good Life initiative made a difference?

As a leader in employee health and wellness, we implemented The Good Life to build a culture of excellence that encourages healthier daily choices for staff. Focusing on such areas as hypertension, high cholesterol and weight control, our hospitals provide walking trails, fitness centers and nutritious, less expensive cafeteria food. We offer wellness fairs, newsletters, tracking tools and incentives to improve health. Our data suggests a 2 percent movement from chronic to improved health can save us more than $600,000 annually.

Is there evidence executive physicals work?

The stress of heavy commitments, constant challenges and long hours can result in lack of exercise, skipped doctor visits and unhealthy diets for busy leaders. Physicals offer preventive care including comprehensive evaluation, screenings and physical exams that are personalized, convenient and meet schedules of busy executives. Studies show executives undergoing physicals had 20 percent fewer health claims and missed 45 percent fewer workdays than those who did not.

Can implementing Lean initiatives help?

With declining revenues, escalating costs and demand for increased value and quality, implementing management systems and workshops such as Lean make a difference. They create a sense of purpose, team problem solving and long-term thinking by proactively engaging staff.  In four years with a new ‘lean’ attitude, our hospitals eliminated hundreds of unnecessary process steps and reduced distances staff travel to carry out their jobs by thousands of miles. We expect $195 million in net revenue returned over a decade. Most importantly, we’re improving patient care.

As one of only 29 employers worldwide to receive the Gallup Great Workplace Award, how important are engaged employees?

According to Gallup, the thing that makes a successful workplace is engaged employees — those wanting to know the company’s expectations so they can meet and exceed them. They use their talents and strengths to perform at consistently high levels, charging enthusiastically toward tough tasks, working with passion, driving innovation and moving companies forward. Engagement of passionate workers is a powerful factor in creating new ideas and catalyzing ‘outside-the-box’ thinking to improve business processes and customer service. We are honored to be the only employer in Orange or Los Angeles County to receive this prestigious award.

How are electronic medical records (EMRs) improving care?

Our digital EMRs allow clinicians to have immediate access to a patient’s health and medical history, minimize waste and inefficiency of paper-based processes, maximize clinical quality and patient outcomes at points of decision-making, reduce medical errors and improve patient care. Physician offices can link to our hospital EMRs, and patients can access records through an online portal.

What about retail health centers?

Retail health clinics offer convenient and affordable care for consumers seeking treatment for common medical conditions, immunizations and basic health needs. Our clinics in ALBERTSONS/Sav-On Pharmacy stores in Huntington Beach, Mission Viejo and Irvine are staffed by highly trained nurse practitioners and have close physician oversight. They provide treatment for common illnesses like colds, flu, sore throats, earaches, sinus infection, skin conditions and minor wounds, and also offer school physicals.

How can employers promote wellness?

Companies can partner with MemorialCare to offer worksite education, health fairs, screenings, health prevention and immunizations. Our experts help employers identify cost reduction strategies through benefit audits and partnerships to achieve competitive prices. The memorialcare.org online guides and physician referrals help your work force achieve a healthier lifestyle. Our Presidents’ Partnership programs inform and engage employers and seek solutions to health costs and challenges. Working together, we can identify improvements and advocate for better care for our communities.

Barry Arbuckle, Ph.D., is the president and CEO of MemorialCare Health System. The not-for-profit MemorialCare Health System includes Long Beach Memorial Medical Center, Miller Children’s Hospital Long Beach, Community Hospital Long Beach, Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley and Saddleback Memorial Medical Center in Laguna Hills and San Clemente. For additional information on excellence in health care, please visit memorialcare.org.

Published in Orange County

While politicians and pundits continue to debate the future of health care reform, there is progress. Extending health coverage to age 26 for many young people and eliminating barriers for pre-existing conditions are beginning to show positive effects. Many employers adding or enhancing their wellness activities are lessening the increase in benefit costs.

Smart Business learned more from Barry Arbuckle, Ph.D., the president and CEO of MemorialCare Health System, about how businesses can implement changes to have a real effect on health care costs.

Are prevention and wellness good investments?

The work force is as critical to your bottom line as the quality of products and services. Costs of workers at high risk for chronic conditions are three times that of healthy employees. Healthier lifestyle programs in the state could save $1.7 billion annually, according to California Endowment. Research shows that two-thirds of the nation’s work force is overweight, and each overweight employee costs businesses an additional $500 to $2,500 in medical expenses and work loss. Wellness activities can save $1.49 to $4.91 for every dollar spent, reduce absences 30 percent and help recruit, retain and increase productivity. It can be as simple and relatively inexpensive as offering pedometers, walking programs and sessions on achieving better health.

How has MemorialCare’s Good Life initiative made a difference?

As a leader in employee health and wellness, we implemented The Good Life program to build a culture of excellence that encourages healthier daily choices for staff. Focusing on such areas as hypertension, high cholesterol and weight control, our hospitals provide walking trails, fitness centers and nutritious, less expensive cafeteria food. We also offer wellness fairs, newsletters, tracking tools and incentives to improve health. Our data suggests a 2 percent movement from chronic to improved health can save us more than $600,000 annually.

Is there evidence executive physicals work?

The stress of heavy commitments, constant challenges and long hours can result in lack of exercise, skipped doctor visits and unhealthy diets for busy leaders. Physicals offer preventive care including comprehensive evaluation, screenings and physical exams, which are personalized, convenient and meet schedules of busy executives. Studies show executives undergoing physicals have 20 percent fewer health claims and missed 45 percent fewer workdays than those who did not.

Can implementing Lean initiatives help?

With declining revenues, escalating costs and demand for increased value and quality, implementing management systems and workshops such as Lean make a difference. They create a sense of purpose, team problem solving and long-term thinking by proactively engaging staff.  In four years with a new ‘lean’ attitude, our hospitals eliminated hundreds of unnecessary process steps and reduced distances staff travel to carry out their jobs by thousands of miles. We expect $195 million in net revenue returned over a decade. Most importantly, we’re improving patient care.

As one of only 29 employers worldwide to receive the Gallup Great Workplace Award, how important are engaged employees?

According to Gallup, the thing that makes a successful workplace is engaged employees — those wanting to know the company’s expectations so they can meet and exceed them. They use their talents and strengths to perform at consistently high levels, charging enthusiastically toward tough tasks, working with passion, driving innovation and moving companies forward. Engagement of passionate workers is a powerful factor in creating new ideas and catalyzing ‘outside-the-box’ thinking to improve business processes and customer service. We are honored to be the only employer in Los Angeles or Orange County to receive this prestigious award.

How are electronic medical records (EMRs) improving care?

Our digital EMRs allow clinicians to have immediate access to a patient’s health and medical history, minimize waste and inefficiency of paper-based processes, maximize clinical quality and patient outcomes at points of decision-making, reduce medical errors and improve patient care. Physician offices can link to our hospital EMRs, and patients can access records through an online portal.

How can employers promote wellness?

Employers can partner with MemorialCare hospitals and physicians by offering classes on reducing calorie intake, teaching desk exercises that become part of workplace routine, moving from unhealthy to nutritious foods in the cafeteria and vending machines, scheduling healthy meal preparation lessons, and providing programs that reward those losing weight, lowering blood pressure and other health risks, and more. MemorialCare offers worksite education, health prevention, screenings, health fairs and immunizations. Our experts help employers identify cost reduction strategies through benefit audits and partnerships to achieve competitive prices.

The memorialcare.org online guides and physician referrals help your work force achieve a healthier life. The MemorialCare Presidents’ Partnership informs and engages employers large and small on issues they all face and seeks solutions that address the challenges and costs of health care.

Working together, we can all identify improvements and advocate for better care for the communities we serve.

Barry Arbuckle, Ph.D., is the president and CEO of MemorialCare Health System. The not-for-profit MemorialCare Health System includes Long Beach Memorial Medical Center, Miller Children’s Hospital Long Beach, Community Hospital Long Beach, Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley and Saddleback Memorial Medical Center in Laguna Hills and San Clemente. For additional information on excellence in health care, please visit memorialcare.org.

Published in Los Angeles

Even employers who maintain a workplace that encourages employees to eat better, exercise, stop smoking and follow doctor’s orders regarding chronic illnesses will continue to have employees who smoke, who aren’t taking their medications and who are out of shape. These unhealthy habits hurt the company through lost productivity and increased health care costs.

“Employers have tried to play nice, meaning that if employees did specific things, such as stop smoking or complete a health risk assessment to understand their numbers, the employer gave them a gift certificate,” says Steve Freeman, president of USI. “The problem is, employees that don’t want to change and continue their poor behavior will continue to do so if the incentive isn’t meaningful. A gift certificate isn’t going to cut it if you want to change behavior.”

Employers are seeing that this behavior is affecting their bottom line costs, and are using more drastic measures to take control.

Smart Business spoke with Freeman about how to use financial incentives to promote wellness and how doing so can improve productivity and your bottom line.

Why should employers care about the health of their employees?

Health risk factors pose a substantial economic burden to businesses. Health care spending is projected to reach $4.2 trillion per year by 2012, or 20 percent of GDP. Of that, $450 billion will be spent on direct costs, and American companies are bearing the costs of poor employee health. But it’s not just direct costs. Obesity, heart disease, depression, diabetes and other chronic illnesses lead to sick days, absenteeism, decreased productivity, low morale and staff turnover, which are estimated to cost U.S. corporations an additional $225.8 billion per year.

If people are healthy and feel good about themselves, they are more productive, miss less work and claim less on medical plans. Employers are realizing they can provide an environment that promotes a culture of good health, resulting in direct and indirect benefits.

How can employers begin to build a wellness program that works?

Start with getting the overall health status of your employee population by having everyone complete a health risk assessment (HRA). This will give you a profile of your employees regarding their overall health. For example, It will share how many people have high blood pressure, diabetes, or a BMI over a certain level so that you can establish a starting point. That way, if people participate in wellness programs, you’ll have a benchmark to compare against the following year.

From there, determine the incentives based on actual results. It is important to keep score, monitoring and measuring results or changes in activities. Sharing aggregate results and success stories will help promote these programs.

What financial incentives can employers use to encourage people to participate?

Instead of a gift card or a minimal cash incentive to fill out a health risk assessment, consider discounts on contributions to the health plan or offer those who participate a better plan with a lower deductible, coinsurance and copay. Also, some employers can make cash contributions into health reimbursement accounts for employees.

Under HIPAA’s 20 percent rule, the reward offered cannot exceed more than 20 percent of the cost of the insurance. For example, if a single employee’s insurance costs are $550 a month, and the employee pays 30 percent, that’s $165. If that employee made improvements in his or her wellness measurements and scored well, the person could only pay 10 percent, or $55, which is a considerable savings. As an employee, why wouldn’t you participate and try to make some improvements?

Under HIPAA, a program that offers incentives must be reassessed yearly, be designed to promote health and wellness, and be made available to all similarly situated individuals to provide a reasonable alternative method of receiving the reward.

How can a program be structured to reward healthy behavior?

If employees are overweight, you’re not telling them they have to be a certain weight. It’s about making incremental changes and seeing results. Or if employees have diabetes and are not taking their medication, but the programs get them to adhere to their medication plan, then they’ve satisfied that criterion. There are a lot of ways to set it up and measure results.

How are insurance companies encouraging employers to incentivize employees?

If companies provide a smoke-free environment, an onsite exercise facility or gym memberships, many insurance companies will reduce their premiums. In addition, if you mandate HRAs and get a certain percentage of employees to participate, there may be premium reductions because it gives the insurance company a snapshot into the overall health status of the group. That allows them and the employer group to set up a targeted wellness program that is tailored to their own population. For example, if you have a high prevalence of individuals with diabetes, you can focus your wellness communication on how to manage diabetes. If you have a high prevalence of smokers, you can zero in on smoking cessation programs. It allows you to tailor your communication to your population versus just pulling something off the shelf and saying you have a wellness program.

What is the role of management?

It is critically important that senior management endorse and participates in the program. If they don’t, it won’t be successful. If the CEO knows it’s important and is participating, employees will follow. Companies that want to increase their bottom lines may want to influence their employees with more aggressive incentives, which will increase productivity and moral and decrease absenteeism, turnover and medical premiums.

Steve Freeman is president of USI San Francisco. Reach him at (925) 472-6772 or steve.freeman@usi.biz.

Published in Northern California

Studies show that people are more likely to eat right or exercise if their friends, family and co-workers do so, too.

As an employer, that is something you can take advantage of to encourage healthy behavior in your employees. Many of them are already using social networking of some kind, so why not leverage that into your employee wellness program? Think of it as positive peer pressure.

“If employees are given access to a social platform as part of a wellness program, they feel more empowered to participate,” says Jamie Curts, vice president of business development with Spectrum Health Systems. “It adds a level of interaction with their peers.”

For example, employees could invite other employees on the network to a wellness event — such as a 5-K road race or a yoga class — then post photos or videos from the event, encouraging more employees to join them next time.

Smart Business spoke with Curts about how to change your employees’ status updates from “Just ordered a pizza” to “Just got back from the gym.”

How can social media tools impact participation in employee wellness programs?

There is more evidence than ever that shows peer support is a critical and effective strategy for ongoing health care and sustained behavior change. Combine this knowledge with the fact that Facebook alone has more than 500 million users, and it just makes sense to incorporate social media tools into employee wellness programs.

According to research by Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis, a professor at Harvard University’s medical school, people are more likely to eat right or exercise if family, friends and co-workers are doing so, as well.

How is this trend changing the way that employee wellness programs work?

While there is an increasing trend, only a small percentage of companies have actually put these tools in place. According to a 2010 survey by Towers Watson, only 9 percent of 588 companies surveyed use social media in their wellness initiatives. However, 42 percent of those in the survey plan to incorporate some element of social networking into their wellness initiatives by 2012.

We are beginning to see the engagement and the perception of employer-sponsored wellness programs shift among employees. With access to a social platform, employees feel more empowered to participate and share ideas among their peers, instead of just feeling as though they are participating in a company-sponsored ‘program.’ There will be more organically grown programs among smaller groups of employees with similar interests, needs and goals.

Which social media tools are particularly well suited to work with wellness programs?

There are many options available for employers; the key is finding the right platform for your organization. Many employers use Facebook and Twitter because they are already familiar with the functionality and capabilities. These are also inexpensive options for employers with a small budget.

If the employer already provides an intranet site, social media tools can be easily added to the benefits portion. Employees can be recruited to write blogs, Twitter feeds can be integrated, pictures and videos of wellness events can be posted and employees can post invitations to health and wellness groups and events.

Most wellness providers can also provide a customized platform for your organization. This platform can be branded to your organization, which will give it a special look and feel that supports your initiatives. This option appeals to many employers and employees because it is managed by a third party.

What are some examples of ways social media tools can be used with employee wellness programs?

One of the most popular worksite wellness activities is the companywide weight loss challenge. Participants are often encouraged and educated through company e-mails, posters and ‘lunch and learn’ presentations.

But very few organizations provide a tool for participants in these challenges to communicate their successes and struggles among each other. Not only will using social media as a tool to supplement the challenge help with the outcomes of the six-week-long weight loss program, the momentum can continue throughout the entire year.

How can social media tools be used to improve employees’ engagement with their wellness programs?

Social networking tools allow employees to directly invite and challenge each other to participate in wellness events, which are an effective way to increase participation. Senior leadership support is one of the most critical components of a worksite wellness program. However, employees are much more likely to participate if they see that their peers are involved.

What potential pitfalls should companies be aware of when adding a social media component to their wellness programs?

It is easy to add a company wellness group to Facebook and Twitter, but employers need to be aware of the limitations in regulating a public forum. There is less control as to who joins the group and the comments that are posted on the site. Employers can have more control by adding tools to an existing intranet site or by working with a third-party wellness provider.

Employers also need to know that social media tools are not the only solution to their wellness needs. This is just one tool that should be a piece of a larger strategy.

Jamie Curts is vice president of business development with Spectrum Health Systems. Reach her at jamie.curts@spectrumhs.com or (317) 573-7600.

Published in Indianapolis

How many days of work did your employees miss last year as a result of the flu? And how many more did they cost you when they came to work sick, infecting your other employees?

There’s no getting around the fact that people are going to get sick. But as an employer, you can help your employees make smart choices to improve their odds of staying healthy, says Julie Sich, health promotions coordinator for SummaCare Inc.

“By encouraging your employees to get flu shots, you can increase the chances of maintaining a healthy work force,” says Sich. “A vaccinated employee population can also reduce the risk of lost productivity as a result of absent employees, or those who are at work but are less productive as a result of being ill.”

Smart Business spoke with Sich about how to encourage your employees to get flu shots and how doing so can benefit both your employees and your business.

What is the impact of the flu on American businesses?

Each year, an average of five to 20 percent of the American population will be infected with the flu virus. More than 200,000 people will be hospitalized annually due to complications from the flu. It’s estimated that the flu is responsible for an average of 200 million days of diminished productivity in the workplace and 75 million missed days of work. The average employer will lose $600 in work value for each employee infected with the flu virus.

Who should be vaccinated?

The Centers for Disease Control recommends that everyone over the age of six months be vaccinated against the flu, but it is especially important for those at high risk. People at high risk include pregnant women, those 50 years and older, those with chronic medical conditions, those who live or work in nursing homes, and those who live with or care for those at high risk.

Additionally, if company leaders are encouraging employees to be vaccinated, they must lead by example. As an executive, you should be the first to be vaccinated. If you show your employees that you take this seriously, they are more likely to follow your example.

What can employers do to encourage employees to get vaccinated?

Employers can encourage employees to get flu shots by offering incentives such as vouchers or gift cards and also by including flu shots as a covered benefit under your health plan. Employer-subsidized vaccines can also be an incentive, as some employees may be unable or unwilling to pay themselves.

In addition, employers can grant time off without penalty to allow employees to leave work to be vaccinated during their shifts. People are more likely to be vaccinated if  allowed to do so on company time rather than having to go after work or on a weekend. In addition, creating a competition to reward the department with the highest percentage of people immunized can be an effective strategy.

How can an onsite flu vaccine clinic increase the number of participants?

The easier you make it for employees to be vaccinated, the more likely they are to do so. And the cost of hosting the program is small when compared to the time and money that sick employees will cost you annually.

Employers may also want to consider extending the program to family members, as sick spouses and children could cause employees to lose time at work to stay home to care for them.

To arrange an on-site clinic, identify a reliable flu vaccine provider, and schedule the clinic during convenient hours for your employees. The employer needs to provide a private area, but the provider will take care of the paperwork and do the rest.

Providing vaccines is well worth the investment in the savings to the employer in work time. It is also worth the investment because employees who don’t get sick won’t be seeking treatment, which can incur costs to both the employee and to the medical plan.

Being vaccinated is quick, simple and inexpensive. By encouraging your employees to take advantage of a vaccination program, you are not only saving money but also increasing productivity and morale.

How can employers promote the benefits of being vaccinated?

Posters in high-traffic areas can provide information and also act as a reminder to employees who repeatedly pass them. Emails about upcoming clinics in the area can also be effective, as can information included in pay envelopes or through company newsletters.

Beyond encouraging vaccinations, what else can employers do in the workplace to help employees stay healthy?

Encourage employees to wash their hands often, especially after sneezing or coughing, to prevent the transmission of illness. Placing alcohol-based hand sanitizers around the workplace can also encourage employees to wash more often and minimize germs on their hands. If possible, avoid having employees share computer keyboards and telephones. If that is not possible, provide sanitizers and encourage employees to use them liberally.

Discourage employees from touching their faces, as any viruses they touch will be much more easily transmitted through the nose and mouth. And encourage people to use tissues when sneezing or coughing, as the flu virus can easily be transmitted through the air.

Finally, encourage employees who are sick to stay home. Many employees don’t want to use sick days, or feel pressured to come in to work even when they are not well. By creating an environment that encourages workers who are ill to stay home, you can minimize the impact that one sick worker can have on the productivity of an entire office.

Be prepared as we head into flu season.  By encouraging and even providing flu shots, your employees and their families have a better chance of remaining healthy — which is good news for all!

Julie Sich is health promotions coordinator for SummaCare Inc. Reach her at (330) 996-8779 or sichj@summacare.com.

Published in Akron/Canton

More than 18 percent of the U.S. population suffers from high cholesterol, and many of those people may not know it. In fact, up to two-thirds of those suffering from high cholesterol may not have their cholesterol levels under control and, as a result, this silent killer may be doing grave damage to your employees, says Julie Sich, health promotions coordinator for SummaCare, Inc.

“People can’t feel their cholesterol levels rising and often don’t know their levels are high until a stroke or heart attack has occurred,” says Sich. “It is imperative to have regular screenings so that you can take action before irreversible damage has occurred.”

Smart Business spoke with Sich about the risks of high cholesterol and how to control cholesterol levels.

What is cholesterol, and what are the risks if levels are too high?

Cholesterol is a soft, waxy fat substance created by your body, and it is an essential part of the function of every part of your body. However, if you are producing too much of it, either as a result of the food you eat or heredity, the resulting plaque can accumulate on your blood vessel walls. That plaque can lead to a thickening of the walls of the blood vessels and can break off into clots, which can then result in stroke or heart attack.

Because the condition is often symptomless, it is important to be screened regularly.

How often should someone be screened?

Screening is simple — a blood test can establish cholesterol levels and should be done as a routine part of preventive care. In healthy adults, screening is recommended every five years, and more often — up to several times a year — for those whose levels are high and who are taking steps to lower them.

Screening should also be done more often for those who face one or more risk factors for heart disease. Risk factors include smoking, hypertension with blood pressure of 140/90 or higher, taking medication for high blood pressure, a family history of premature heart disease (before age 55 for male relatives and before age 65 for female relatives), pre-existing heart disease or a previous heart attack or diabetes mellitus. Men are also at greater risk after age 45, while the risk rises after age 55 for women.

What are the recommended cholesterol levels?

There are two types of cholesterol — LDL cholesterol and HDL cholesterol. In the past, the total cholesterol number was targeted. However, more recently, it is not the total number that matters as much as the levels of ‘good’ (HDL) and ‘bad’ (LDL) cholesterol.

Cholesterol levels are measured in terms of milligrams per deciliter of blood. For LDL, those at high risk of heart disease should aim for levels below 70 mg/dL; those at lower risk of heart disease should aim for below 100 mg/dL. For those without risk factors, 100-129 mg/dL is near ideal, while 130-159 mg/dL is borderline high, 160-189 mg/dL is considered high and anything over 190 mg/dL is considered very high. Higher levels of this cholesterol clog the arteries, making it harder for the blood to get through. That, in turn, makes the heart work harder, putting stress on the organ.

In addition, if the plaque on the walls of the arteries breaks loose, a clot can form. If that gets lodged in an artery it can choke off the blood supply and cells are deprived of oxygen and die. If a clot makes its way into the brain, blocking blood flow, a stroke can result. And if it moves to the coronary arteries, a heart attack may result.

HDL cholesterol, on the other hand, is often referred to as the ‘good’ cholesterol. This type attaches itself to bad cholesterol and routes it to the liver, which filters it out of the body, reducing the amount of bad cholesterol in your system. Levels of 60 mg/dL and above are recommended, while levels between 50 and 59 mg/dL are considered acceptable. Anything below 40 mg/dL for men and 50 mg/dL for women are considered poor levels.

In addition, triglyceride levels of 100 mg/dL or lower are considered optimal for heart health.

How can someone lower his or her cholesterol levels?

Increasing your levels of HDLs might be a better protector against heart disease than lowering your levels of LDLs, or bad cholesterol. Diet and exercise can play a big part in lowering cholesterol. For example, foods such as oatmeal, nuts and fish should be a regular part of your diet to help maintain healthy cholesterol levels. Vegetables, fruits and whole grains can also help increase dietary fiber and help lower bad LDL cholesterol. Reduce the amount of proteins in your diet, often consumed in meat and dairy products, and limit the amount of saturated fats and trans-fatty acids. When you must add fat, use those high in monounsaturated fats such as olive and peanut oil.

Also, limit the consumption of alcohol, as it can increase cholesterol levels. If you are taking cholesterol-lowering medication, it is important to continue taking it as directed by your physician. Because people on these types of medications don’t notice any difference in the way they feel as a result of taking them, it can be difficult to convince them that those drugs could be saving their lives.

So, how can employers help?

Encourage your employees to get their cholesterol checked regularly. Share information about the importance of diet and exercise. Consider offering healthy alternatives in vending machines and at company gatherings. Offer friendly ‘challenges’ with prizes for those who lower their levels — and maintain! Be creative — your employees will thank you for it!

JULIE SICH is the health promotions coordinator for SummaCare, Inc. Reach her at (330) 996-8779 or sichj@summacare.com. SummaCare offers a full line of health plans and ancillary products. Through its extensive network of more than 7,000 providers and more than 50 hospitals, SummaCare offers coverage to more than 115,000 members throughout northern Ohio.

Published in Akron/Canton

Savvy business owners are always looking for ways to improve the health of both their employees and their business.

However, for some small businesses, establishing and implementing a comprehensive wellness program may not be financially feasible. But they may find help through the Indiana Small Employer Wellness Program Tax Credit, says Sally Stephens, president of Spectrum Health Systems.

“The purpose of the credit is to help more companies reap the benefits of a healthier work force,” Stephens says. “The credit allows these employers to not only allocate the necessary funds toward wellness but also to consider partnering with a wellness provider to assist them.”

Smart Business spoke with Stephens about how to determine whether your business qualifies for the credit and how it could help your company succeed.

What is the Indiana Small Employer Wellness Program Tax Credit?

The Small Employer Wellness Program Tax Credit, introduced in 2007, provides the financial incentive for small employers to implement a comprehensive wellness program. In doing so, employers can receive a state tax credit of up to 50 percent of the costs incurred by an Indiana small business for providing a qualified wellness program to employees.

The credit is funded by the cigarette tax that was introduced the same year.

How can this tax credit help small employers?

The credit allows many employers who, in the past, did not have the internal resources or could not justify the expense of providing wellness services. The credit now allows them not only to allocate the dollars but also to consider partnering with a wellness provider to assist them with this initiative.

How can an employer determine if it is eligible for the tax credit?

The criteria and application process are well defined on the state website. The tax credit is available to employers with two to 100 employees that have received certification from the Indiana State Department of Health for a ‘Qualified Wellness Program.’

To qualify, the program must offer incentives for weight loss and smoking cessation and offer preventive screenings. According to the state Department of Workforce Development, companies with 99 employees or fewer represent nearly 41 percent of all private sector employment, or more than 1 million employees.

Aside from the financial incentive, how can this initiative help employers?

Creating a work environment that supports healthy behaviors will bring an added benefit to everyone in the company. Wellness initiatives show management support for employees and enhance work culture. An effective wellness plan requires a strong program design, a supportive executive team and an encouraging management culture that supports employee participation.

Because employees are a company’s most valuable asset, investing in their well being can improve employee morale, help prevent turnover and potentially reduce long-term health care costs. A program’s success lies not only with the individual but also requires the support of the corporate leadership.

With the increasing cost of insurance and health care, wellness initiatives are some of the best means of reducing health care risk factors and establishing options for preventive health care. Wellness programs potentially reduce insurance costs and help to improve your employees’ overall well being, both now and in the long run.

What does an employer have to do to qualify for the credit?

The Indiana State Department of Health Advisory Board determines if a company’s wellness program can be qualified for the Small Employer Wellness Program Tax Credit. Once the wellness program is approved, the small employer will receive a certificate via the U.S. Postal Service. This certificate must be submitted to an Indiana tax professional with the employer’s tax documents. Only an Indiana tax professional can determine if the small business is eligible to receive the tax credit and file for it.

To qualify for the tax credit, you must meet the requirements defined by Indiana Code 6-3.1-31.2-3, found at www.in.gov/isdh/19950.htm. This includes having between two and 100 full-time employees, with a full-time employee defined as one who is employed at least 30 hours each week. A certified wellness program must be designed to improve the overall health of a company’s employees and include an employee-appropriate weight loss program, a smoking cessation program and the pursuit of preventive health care services

What elements must be included in a qualified wellness plan?

Each of the three above mentioned elements must include a detailed description of each area and include assessments, educational materials, a rewards program and a measurement tool. Assessments are evaluation tools used to determine the health status of the employer’s work force, while educational materials provide information to employees about each component of the wellness program and may include brochures, articles, newsletters and a website. Rewards programs provide incentives for motivating employees to participate in the various aspects of the wellness program, and measurement tools evaluate the success and validity of the wellness programs implemented.

Does every employee have to participate in order for a business to earn the credit?

No. However, programs with high participation levels have the best opportunity for achieving a positive return on investment, improved employee outcomes, reduced absenteeism and a work force that is present on  the job.

Sally Stephens is president of Spectrum Health Systems. Reach her at (317) 573-7600 or sally.stephens@spectrumhs.com.

Published in Indianapolis
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