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VOL. 127 | NO. 167 | Monday, August 27, 2012

Company Wellness Programs Increasing

By JONATHAN DEVIN

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During the height of the Great Recession from 2007 to 2009, some feared that employers would stop providing health care coverage to save money. Now businesses big and small hope to save on health care costs by taking a more active role.

Cash incentives, contests and even in-office gyms may make insurance coverage easier to secure and sustain.

“I am predicting that in the future, insurance companies are going to require wellness plans, so I figured I’d go ahead and start our company on a path toward getting used to having wellness in their faces,” said Angela Lamb, human resources manager for Lifeblood.

Lamb said she was aware of the irony that health care workers themselves sometimes need a lot of encouragement to live healthy lives. But with about 100 people on their insurance plan, she’s willing to make the extra effort.

“We only get a one-year contract regardless of the company we go with,” she said. “That’s because a number of people who are on the plan have so many different issues like heart disease or diabetes and our rates are reflective of those diseases.”

Many organizations like Lifeblood are looking to preventative measures to help reduce their insurance premiums.

Lamb offers monthly webinars, a Zumba class, walking groups, tips for healthy living sent via email and, for the last six years, has held a 12-week “Biggest Loser” contest. The prize for highest percentage of weight lost is $500.

All of these efforts cost money, but insurance providers say it’s in an employer’s best interest to invest.

Jonathan Edwards, director of client technology for The Barnett Group, helps clients figure out where their particular health care needs are and how to address them.

The Barnett Group offers employee benefits packages and financial services, and Edwards’ job is to examine claims of individual employees and figure out where the risk lies.

One client recently set up a critical care plan in which employees will be paid $50 for having a yearly checkup.

“If you’re talking about heart attacks, cancer, things like that, having the checkup done was worth $50 when you’re talking about a $15,000 to $20,000 payout,” Edwards said. “If you catch (a disease) at the very beginning, it decreases the likelihood of having to make that massive payout. That’s why a lot of employers are doing this.”

Money talks to employees as much as it does to employers, said Iva Norman, human resources representative for Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division, which offers a 12-month program with three levels of cash payouts for meeting individual goals.

“It’s not a big dollar amount, but what we pay out (to employees) would not equal a premature birth or a heart attack in health care costs,” Norman said.

MLGW’s plan, called the “My Living Well Plan,” was recognized by the American Heart Association, helping the local utility achieve gold status as a “Fit-Friendly company.”

“We created a culture of physical activity and lifestyle changes,” Norman said.

Losing weight seems key to preventing some of the most expensive critical conditions, Edwards said. He put a sign on his office vending machine showing exactly how much sugar is in one drink. He said the teas and waters are selling much faster these days.

The problem some companies have, though, is sustaining the effort.

“Unfortunately the majority of our (Biggest Loser) winners have always gained their weight back,” said Lamb. “That’s the battle I’m dealing with now. I’m trying to figure out how to make this a permanent weight loss program.”

Employees just have to want to do it, said Katie West, chief talent officer of Metropolitan Bank, which offers an in-house gym with free weights and cardio machines. No cash incentives are offered, though. The Barnett Group also offers an in-office gym even though they only have 10 employees.

“People have access to it 24-7, so if they want to come on Sunday afternoon they can,” West said.

More often, employees work out before or after work or at lunchtime. Several employees started a lunchtime running group, and Metropolitan Bank’s gym has shower and changing facilities as well, so employees are free to work up a sweat.

“The incentive is that it’s there for you,” West said. “What we learned from them is that health and fitness is important to (employees). We do it because they’ve asked for it.”

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