Health programs make work a place to get well

by Lesley Politi on January 15, 2009

Health programs make work a place to get well

by Robyn Rosenthal | Special to the Gazette

Sunday January 04, 2009, 7:00 AM

KALAMAZOO — Gout and arthritic pain in Carol Ann Mason’s legs were a constant reminder that she needed to lose weight.

At 254 pounds, Mason tried dieting and exercising, failing each time.

But Mason, 54, found an unusual partner in her quest to get healthy: work.

Perrigo Co., where Mason is a packaging specialist, offers a workplace wellness program that includes educational sessions, exercise and medical consultation — all at its Allegan site.

The program has made all the difference to Mason, who has lost 50 pounds in the past two years by taking advantage of those on-site offerings.

“I couldn’t have done it on my own,” Mason said.

That concept has not been lost on area employers, more of whom are offering company-sponsored wellness programs as they realize that healthier employees mean a healthier bottom line.

“Health-care spending is out of control, and companies are trying to get their arms around it,” said Josh Little, a business-development manager at Wellness Works, a Kalamazoo-based company that specializes in corporate wellness.

Since 2000, employment-based health-insurance premiums have increased 100 percent and are considered the fastest-growing cost for employers, according to the National Coalition on Health Care, a nonprofit group working to improve health care in the United States.

Blue Care Network started Healthy Blue Living in October 2006, rewarding participants with a 10 percent savings on its health-insurance premiums as well as reduced copays for employees. To date, 12 percent of its 650,000 members participate, said Kevin Klobucar, vice president of products and marketing for Blue Care Network.

“It’s surpassed our expectations pretty significantly,” Klobucar said.

The program, which was started to reduce rising health-care costs during a weak economy, requires employees to complete a confidential online health risk appraisal and visit a primary-care physician in the first 90 days.

“When they take better care of themselves, they address acute conditions that drive up health-care costs,” Klobucar said.

Last week, Klobucar expected two-thirds of Blue Care Network’s customers to renew their health-insurance contracts by Jan. 1. Many are looking at Healthy Blue Living as a way to cut costs, make their businesses thrive and keep employees on the job and healthy.

“It really fits,” Klobucar said. “Absolutely they’re looking at this, especially with this economy.”

Klobucar said customers who don’t participate in Healthy Blue Living but have similar wellness programs also get reduced premiums and copays.

Wellness Works, which launched its products earlier this year, quickly is finding a niche with companies that have multiple locations, workers who telecommute or workers with varied hours, Little said. Wellness Works has an online program, among other things, that educates employees about nutrition, exercise and stress.

Exercise physiologist Stacie Kryszak said corporate wellness isn’t necessarily new, but companies are becoming more invested in their employees’ health and reaching for more successful programs that will improve their bottom lines.

“Companies cannot afford the increase in health-care costs coming,” said Kryszak, who co-owns The Studio in downtown Kalamazoo and was a corporate wellness consultant before joining Wellness Works. “Our biggest advantage is that we’re educating the employees. We’re taking it to a much deeper level. We’re finding a way for them to intrinsically care about their bodies.”

Kryszak estimated that companies that have successful wellness programs get a return of up to $3 for every dollar of investment. She said such savings is crucial.
“Wellness is the wave of the future,” she said. “If … (companies) want to compete, they have to find a way to contain costs. If we don’t do something about it, we’ll have a hard time competing globally.”

Perrigo, which has a self-funding health plan, estimates its wellness program is saving the company up to 15 percent on health-insurance costs, said Bob Withee, director of employee benefits.

The program, started in 2004, includes an on-site medical facility where employees can receive care for routine health concerns such as colds, coughs and sprains.

Perrigo also offers on-site education and exercise programs during all its shifts and sponsors games to maintain enthusiasm. Perrigo also gives discounts to employees who take a health risk assessment and pledge to be tobacco free. Withee said 2,200 of its eligible 3,000 employees participate.

“It’s a baby step, but it’s a big step, becoming aware of your health,” Withee said. “In one day they’re suddenly aware of something they weren’t aware of that could have morphed into a much more serious … (condition).

“I think money is a piece of it, but people also see that ‘I’m better off and my family is better off when I’m healthy.’ I’m hard pressed to say what drives them more.”

Perrigo employees this year had another health assessment, and Withee said the company plans to assess the significance of the wellness program, including looking at how the program has affected absenteeism.

Withee said that when Perrigo started its wellness program, there weren’t others they could model it after. Since then, the trend has taken hold.

“We’ve had a lot of calls from people, business. We’re sharing a lot with our peers in their human resources,” he said.

The Kalamazoo-based Fetzer Institute, whose mission is to foster awareness of the power of love and forgiveness in the emerging global community, has had a wellness program for more than a decade. It offers on-site exercise programs, free massages and even brings in a registered nurse to counsel its 59 employees.

“We’re a living laboratory for the work that we do,” said Christee Khan, human-resources manager, adding that most staff members participate in at least one wellness program.

Khan said Fetzer has a self-funding health plan, meaning it pays all the medical bills and an administrator to manage the claims. She said that, compared to others, Fetzer’s health-care costs are considerably lower.

Little said Wellness Works is finding that corporate wellness programs are impacting not just the employees, but their families. He said a pilot program with one of its clients found that employees are taking what they learn home, passing along the healthy habits to spouses and dependents.

Mason, who said she has been overweight since age 16, said her healthier lifestyle is rubbing off on her 32-year-old daughter, who also is overweight. She said they’ve both cut back on snacking, eating out and eating junk food.

“I didn’t realize,” she said of the consequences of having high cholesterol levels. “The things they taught me — they took it one step further and explained what it all meant.”

Mason walks a track at work twice daily, including at her 15-minute afternoon break. She takes advantage of monthly health screenings at work, such as cholesterol and stress tests. She even spent her bonuses to buy a stationary bike and elliptical trainer.

“If you’re not healthy, you’re not a good employee. You’re giving yourself holdbacks,” Mason said. “My legs don’t hurt quite as much as they did. But more weight has to come off.”


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