Wellness program trims waistlines and health care costs at RDU

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comSeptember 18, 2013 

Jeff Slayton had been biking and exercising for months, but he didn’t really start losing weight until he sat down with a dietitian paid by his employer, the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority.

“She explained sports nutrition to me – what to eat when I’m exercising, what to eat when I’m not,” said Slayton, 45, an information services manager at the airport. “It made the world of difference. That’s when I really started to drop the weight.”

Individual fitness and diet counselors are part of a comprehensive workplace wellness program now in its fifth year at RDU.

Airport workers and their families take advantage of morning and evening fitness classes, and lunchtime sessions on health and nutrition. They walk and run together. They work out in exercise rooms at five airport locations.

On RDU’s private intranet, employees including airport director Mike Landguth share blog posts with their weight-loss goals, their successes and setbacks, and their before-and-after photos.

The effort appears to be paying off. After several years of steep increases, RDU’s health care spending has flattened out. Last year, the airport spent $1.82 million on health care costs, down slightly from a peak of $1.91 million two years earlier.

These figures do not include what RDU spends each year on wellness, a little more than $500 for each of its 275 employees.

Workplace wellness programs have become increasingly popular as employers look for ways to slow the relentless rise – percent last year, according to one national survey – in employee health care expenses.

“The reason for that is the science has become very clear that creating healthy workplaces helps people have better health behaviors,” said Meg Molloy, CEO of N.C. Prevention Partners, a nonprofit group that promotes workforce health. “Employers are trying to reduce health care costs, so they want to help people be as healthy as they can be.”

Wellness incentives

As the Affordable Care Act comes into force in the next couple of years, federal agencies will be offering new incentives to encourage both employers and individuals to get involved in wellness programs – something North Carolina employers are doing already.

A survey in April of 267 employers by CAI, a Raleigh-based human resources management firm, found that nearly half offer some sort of wellness benefits such as flu shots, health fairs and exercise classes.

It’s not all about saving money, said Molly Hegeman, a CAI vice president. Many wellness programs have a mix of group activities that bring employees together.

“There is some element of team building and camaraderie that comes from it,” Hegeman said.

That rings true for Slayton, who has worked at RDU for 11 years.

“It’s almost like you have two families,” he said. “We really do have a work family because there’s a lot of people here that genuinely care, and they do a lot of things together, especially exercise.”

Slayton set out on his path to fitness in 2011, when his weight topped 240 pounds and he had to hold his breath to button his size-40 jeans. He started cycling, and he struggled through weeks of exhaustion and discouragement.

But he kept with it. Now he runs a few miles at lunchtime and bikes 160 miles a week. In October, Slayton will lead a group of RDU workers on a 150-mile bike ride to Wrightsville Beach. He’s about to trade his size-36 jeans for size-34, and his weight has dropped to 193.

“I feel like I have more energy,” Slayton said. “I can do more things during the day. I’m off all my medications – no more high blood pressure, no more cholesterol. And no more headaches. That’s the best part.”

20% discount on premiums

RDU offers employees a 20 percent discount on insurance premiums if they take part in yearly health-risk assessments, which provide individual feedback for the employee and a broad statistical profile for the airport authority.

From the first assessments in 2009, airport managers recognized that only a few RDU employees are smokers, so there was no need for a stop-smoking campaign. Instead, the assessments helped them concentrate on chronic problems that were causing trouble for lots of their workers.

“We saw high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes and obesity,” said Cleon Umphrey Jr., RDU director of administration. “Those were the major issues we wanted to focus on.”

Thirty percent of RDU workers registered a body-mass index that indicates obesity, and an additional 50 percent were rated overweight. Those numbers have declined in more recent assessments. The share of employees with high blood pressure dropped from 43 percent in 2009 to 24 percent in 2012.

Off to an uncertain start

The airport’s wellness program got off to an uncertain start. An early feature included strict fitness standards for police, fire and rescue officers. RDU fired a 19-year veteran police lieutenant in 2010 because she couldn’t do enough pushups and was too slow on a 300-meter run. Two others quit before they could be fired.

Many employees were apprehensive when RDU introduced the health-risk assessment, which includes blood tests. Administrators had to make clear, Umphrey said, that they were collecting aggregate information only, and that supervisors did not receive personal health information about individual employees.

The assessments alerted some workers to problems they could not afford to ignore.

“For myself, it exposed some issues about my health,” said Will Winstead, 49, who buys and inventories airport maintenance and operations supplies. He has worked at RDU for 22 years.

With a sedentary lifestyle he blamed partly on an injury to his Achilles tendon, Winstead’s weight had ballooned to 275 pounds. One day in March, his 6-year-old son, Kellee, saw him without his shirt.

“He said, ‘Dad, you’ve got a big fat belly,’” Winstead said.

That got his attention. He began coming to the airport early in the morning to lift weights.

“I started walking. I changed the way I eat. I sat down with one of the counselors, and she gave me a meal plan,” Winstead said.

“Now everything we cook, it’s either on the grill or in the oven. I don’t do any breads. I eat a lot of vegetables. A lot of broccoli. I quit drinking beer.”

Winstead had drawn courage from Slayton’s blog posts, and he decided to go public with co-workers, too. He posted his son’s photo of his big fat belly.

“I told everybody I had high blood pressure and I’m on medication,” Winstead said. “At first I was like, do I really want to say this?” But he was reassured by encouraging responses from other RDU employees.

Pounds come off

Winstead has lost 29 pounds since March, down now to 246 pounds. His doctor says he might be able to stop taking his hypertension medicine when he hits 225.

“The other day my son said, ‘Dad, you’re losing weight. But you’ve still got some more work to do on that belly,’” Winstead said.

Like weight watchers everywhere, Winstead and Slayton have found how hard it is to keep those pounds off. Raised on a Maryland farm, Slayton sometimes has a hard time saying “no” to his mother’s cooking.

“No more biscuits. No more hamburger gravy. Bacon. I don’t do eggs. Any of the high-calorie ‘good food,’ she calls it,” Slayton said. “Mama still tries to fatten me up.”

Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown. On Twitter @Road_Worrier.

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