Midtown Raleigh News

Healthy workers mean healthy wallets for towns

Beth Jones’ job as recreation supervisor for Wake Forest means a lot of sitting and keeping an eye on things while other folks work out.

In the first years of her decade working for the town, her weight inched up a few pounds.

Then came the town’s wellness program, offering camaraderie and training – plus donated iPods and extra vacation time – for weight loss and improved fitness. This year, Jones has dropped the extra weight, won first place in overall fitness improvement and is headed to Lake Gaston with 12 extra vacation hours.

“I think they really care and want us to be healthy,” Jones said. “People work together better now. I think it pays off.”

It’s not just Jones and her co-workers who reap the benefits of Wake Forest’s 5-year-old wellness program. The town’s health insurance rates just dropped 4.3 percent for 2012-13, a figure Wake Forest Commissioner Frank Drake called “astonishing” when it was announced at a May board meeting.

Organizations shopping for insurance can get credits for their wellness programs if they meet certain criteria, said Jim Price, senior partner at IBD Benefits and Risk Management, which works with Wake Forest. Since the wellness program started in Wake Forest in 2007, the town has received about $75,000 in credits, Price said.

More importantly, the town’s high-dollar claims have decreased significantly, and annual health care costs have leveled off instead of rising as they did in the past.

“I think it is fair to say the town has saved tens of thousands of dollars...by implementing and staying the course with a strong wellness initiative,” Price said.

Raleigh’s savings

Wake Forest isn’t the only local municipality with a growing focus on illness- and injury-prevention through wellness programs.

Raleigh’s “robust” program includes an annual health fair and health risk assessment that began in late 2008, said Gloria Hartsfield, deputy director of human resources. Employees have their blood pressure, weight, cholesterol and other health indicators checked by Rex Hospital employees. At-risk employees can attend free follow-up classes on topics such as diabetes and weight management.

If employees sign an affidavit that they do not use tobacco products, they get another $20 off their monthly premium. That’s in addition to reduced rates at Rex fitness centers, smoking cessation programs and fitness and weight loss challenges every quarter, Hartsfield said.

The city has seen savings. In the 2009-10 fiscal year, the city’s total net medical claims saw a 17.3 percent increase over the previous year. In 2010-11, the most recent numbers that are available, that dropped to a 1.8 percent upward trend – growth slowed by more than $2 million compared to the previous year. The wellness program contributed to that decrease, Hartsfield said.

Raleigh’s wellness program cost the city $52,831 in 2011, mostly for health risk assessments and follow-up classes for employees with risk factors and chronic diseases such as diabetes, Hartsfield said. The city reduces costs by asking expert staff members to teach wellness classes or finding doctors and nutritionists willing to volunteer.

‘Every bit counts’ in Rolesville

Rolesville has had a non-mandatory wellness program for three years, free through the League of Municipalities, Town Manager Brian Hicks said. The town offers wellness testing once a year, which includes weight and body fat assessments.

Nearly 100 percent of the town’s employees choose to participate, Hicks said. The impact on health insurance costs are minor – only a dollar or two for the year. But that’s something, he said.

“Every little bit counts,” Hicks said.

Team building a benefit

Senior human resources analyst Tricia Mahoney started Wake Forest’s wellness committee after noticing a sharp rise in the town’s health insurance costs. Now, the town has two employee challenges per year focused on weight or fitness, offering rewards for best in category and most improved over time.

During the most recent challenge, employees were given an hour off work every Wednesday to exercise. Employees get six free nutritionist visits per year. Each department gets free fruit every quarter.

The program builds camaraderie among co-workers while helping them avoid the sedentary-based illnesses to which office workers are prone, Mahoney said. The team-building aspects were unplanned but welcome, she said – the “icing on the cake, though I shouldn’t use that analogy for wellness.”

The town’s wellness program has been so effective that Blue Cross Blue Shield asked Mahoney to speak last year at its regional meeting. Her plans for the initiative include wellness retreats and a hydration blitz to challenge employees to drink more water.

Wellness programs help identify previously unknown health risks to employees who would have been expensive to insure if those conditions had continued unchecked, Price said.

The town saved $300,000 off its initial proposed rates for this year. The town’s average rate increase over the past three years was less than 1 percent, Price said, and each year since the wellness program was implemented, that change has been “exponentially” less.

The wellness committee managed that with a $3,000 budget, Mahoney said – healthy employees cost the town less than unhealthy ones.

“It just clicked,” Mahoney said. “The more we do with wellness, the more it’s helping our bottom line.”