Bryan Hanson wanted to lower his cholesterol. His employer, Creighton University, gave him plenty of help.
About $2,000 worth.
Blood tests, a pedometer, a blood pressure monitor, journals to track food intake and physical activity, free access to the campus fitness center, plus monthly meetings with a health care provider.
Under a program that targets high-risk employees, Hanson kept track of what he ate and shrunk his portion sizes. He wore a pedometer every day and logged his number of steps. He checked and recorded his blood pressure every night, watching for things that caused it to spike.
“The thing I found most helpful was having that monthly meeting with somebody,” Hanson said. “They kind of keep you on task.”
Creighton is among a small but growing number of employers that offer intense wellness programs that go beyond the typical workplace plan.
One of the goals of the programs is to help sick workers get better and identify undetected health problems. The programs have upfront costs, but for self-insured employers like Creighton, identifying problems early and keeping employees out of the hospital can save health insurance dollars in the long run. Self-insured companies must absorb the costs when they have bad years full of expensive claims but benefit when claims are kept down.
The federal government, under the Affordable Care Act, aims to strengthen workplace wellness programs. Among other things, it will increase the maximum amount of the incentives employers can offer to employees who meet health-related goals. No matter what the U.S. Supreme Court decides about the health care law, prevention and early intervention programs are unlikely to fall out of favor.
Hanson, who is associate director of the Werner Institute for Negotiation & Dispute Resolution, is 35 years old. Last fall, his cholesterol level was nearly 300, and it's supposed to be under 200.
His doctor started him on a medicine to lower his cholesterol, but Hanson didn't like the idea of taking the drug for the rest of his life.
By following the program that was laid out for him, he lost about 15 pounds between October and April. His cholesterol dropped to 143 mg/dL, a healthier number.
“In April, I got my doctor's permission to stop taking the (cholesterol) medicine,” Hanson said. “It's a definite success story for me.”
About 80 Creighton employees are enrolled in the intensive risk-reduction programs aimed at diabetes or high blood pressure or high cholesterol. That's out of about 1,600 employees who took part in the annual wellness assessment.
Tom Lenz, the program's clinical director, said Creighton has seen a return on investment in one year.
The number of self-reported unhealthy days — days employees show up for work but don't feel well enough to be productive — has been cut almost in half, Lenz said.
“People are significantly improving their quality of life from being in the program,” he said.
One of the program's advantages, Lenz said, is that the health care experts monitor participants' medications. They have found a number of people with serious interactions between prescription drugs and herbal supplements.
About 400 of the Alegent Health system's 8,600 workers are in an intensive program for high-risk patients. The workers either enrolled themselves or were identified by an outside company through health screenings or insurance or pharmacy claims data.
Participants in the Alegent program talk with health coaches once a week over the phone, said Ben Matiyow, Alegent Health's wellness coordinator.
All Alegent employees also have free access to smoking-cessation classes and can participate in a weight-management program at a discounted rate. Employees also get substantial discounts to the wellness centers at Lakeside Hospital and Immanuel Medical Center and to exercise facilities at other hospitals. They also can get their application fees waived at local YMCAs.
If Alegent employees hit a certain health score or improve their scores by a certain amount, they get a $520 reduction in insurance premiums for the year.
It used to be that employers would give employees a discount on their premiums or some sort of monetary compensation if they simply attended a health screening, said Michael Demman, CEO of Simply Well, an Omaha-based company that runs corporate wellness programs for more than 130 companies nationwide. More employers, Demman said, “are going that next step. They're using a health score or some sort of scoring system that is directly tied to objective clinical data” such as improvements in Body Mass Index, cholesterol level or blood pressure. “They're using that as the measurement of whether an employee is entitled to an incentive.”
At Union Pacific Railroad, assistance comes first from occupational health nurses, said Marcy Zauha, U.P.'s director of wellness and safety. “They are our first line of contact with the majority of our employees,” she said.
The nurses, she said, can offer advice on nutrition or exercise or direct employees to smoking-cessation or weight-control programs.
U.P. employees also have telephone access to wellness coaches and get free gym memberships.
The assistance from the nurses or the coaches helps employees deal with their health problems, Zauha said. “Knowing that somebody's going to be there not only to hold you accountable but to answer your questions” can make a difference, she said.
Employee wellness programs aren't limited to health and fitness counseling or reduced-price or free gym memberships. Since January 2010, Greater Omaha Packing Co. has provided an off-site medical clinic for its employees and their dependents.
The clinic, which serves only the plant's workers from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday, charges no co-pays. Having it in place has reduced the number of employee visits to emergency rooms and urgent care centers, said Ann Ashford, director and corporate counsel of Private Practice Associates LLC, which operates the clinic for the company. “We've seen more patients year over year. They are being more compliant with doctors' orders.”
Whether it's an intensive program for at-risk workers or a dedicated medical clinic, employers are providing their workers with “more tools and resources to be successful,” said Demman of Simply Well. “They're taking away all the excuses for a person to say, ‘I just can't do it.'”
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