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Healthy Staff, healthy company


Wellness programming has become much more accessible to smaller employer groups in the New North in recent years

Story by Robin Bruecker

With health care and insurance costs being so high, you’d think that old cliché “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” would have a lot of merit these days. It’s cheaper for both employers and employees to prevent health problems or nip them in the bud early.

Yet, for various reasons smaller companies – i.e., those with 50 or fewer employees – many are slower to embrace wellness programs, which are designed to get employees in better shape and improve their quality of life while reducing health care costs.

“It always has to come down to cost and time with a small employer,” said Chris H. Hanson, president of Appleton-based Hanson Benefits Inc., an independent insurance agency that provides health, dental and other products to businesses.

As a small-business owner herself, Hanson has to weigh the two resources.

“Unless I remain focused on what I do best and hire out the rest, anything that takes away from my bottom line will negatively affect my business quickly. My return on investment or cost becomes much more glaringly evident than in a larger company. Thirty minutes of wasted time a day can quickly become an issue,” Hanson said.

With a wellness program there may be no direct correlation to reduced costs, plus no guarantee that employers will see health insurance savings, noted Deborah Anderson, director of health promotion with Menasha-based Network Health Plan. But a healthier population is beneficial in the long term.

The path to wellness

Network Health Plan offers small employer groups – those with at least two and up to 100 enrolled participants – a no-cost wellness program called Wellness Pathways. By participating in the program and meeting certain wellness criteria, members are able to earn back as much as 10 percent of the yearly premium.

“Wellness Pathways is the only program that I know of that will give rewards to employers when their employees do the right thing,” said Anderson. “The program does not come at a cost for employers and they can see real money returned to them on an annual basis.”

Anderson added that to get the most out of their wellness program and increase employee participation, small businesses may opt to hire a wellness provider, and this tactic has been shown to get results.

Hanson – a co-founder of the Well City-Fox Cities initiative involving more than 50 local employers aiming to become certified well workplaces – has a number of clients who joined Network’s Wellness Pathways program.

“This program is revolutionary in my mind, because Network is truly putting their money where their mouth is by offering back to the employer for any employee who can attain the criteria that NHP has established to be considered healthy,” she explained. “A reward of earning back 10 percent of the total annual premium paid is huge. In some cases, an employee (and family) can see upwards of $1,000 to $1,300 returned on their behalf.

“The employers don’t have to implement any extensive program with this wellness initiative either. One employee can choose to participate – because it’s voluntary – and receive the reward, and the next employee can bypass it completely.”

Upon enrollment in Wellness Pathways, each member takes a form to their annual physical to assess biometric scores. If five of the seven wellness criteria are met between the start of the plan and 15 days before the end of the plan year, the employer is eligible for a wellness reward based on a percent of the employer’s total health insurance premium, Anderson explained. Points are earned for annual wellness visits, not using tobacco, and not having high blood pressure or a high body mass index, as well as other health criteria.

After the group coverage with Network is renewed, a wellness-reward check is sent to the employer. The employer can choose to use the reward check however they like. Often, these rewards are used for prizes, cash, debit cards and other incentives for employees. However, in compliance with the state Office of the Commissioner of Insurance, the reward can’t be used to offset employees’ monthly contributions to their health plans.

Since Wellness Pathways was launched in July 2010, Network Health Plan recently made its first payout to participating companies – around $116,000 total.

“We are making a significant commitment to assisting small employers with implementing wellness programming,” said Anderson.

Money talks. For participating employers, the opportunity for a financial reward offered significant encouragement.

“The financial gain was the main reason we participated in Wellness Pathways,” said Julie Weisshahn, office manager for the law firm of Remley & Sensenbrenner, S.C., in Neenah. “We achieved 70 percent participation and ended up with a financial reward (cash back) of approximately one month of premium. We made sure participants understand what they needed to do and followed up to confirm the information was received by Network Health.”

Weisshahn said her goal for the upcoming plan year is 100 percent participation from their group. She noted that Network’s Wellness Pathways program aligns with some of the firm’s own benefits, including a wellness program available to all staff with matching funds for health club memberships, exercise equipment, an annual health assessment, and so on.

Wellness for all

Anthem Blue Cross & Blue Shield offers a wide range of wellness programs and tools for employers called 360° Health. They’re seeing greater interest from smaller employers.

“Many of 360° Health’s components are included automatically in the health insurance products we sell to small employers, and additional programs and services are available for purchase as add-ons,” said Scott Larrivee, public relations director for Anthem in Wisconsin.

There are no-cost tools for members on Anthem’s Web site; a free online program called Healthy Lifestyles; a 24/7 NurseLine; ConditionCare for individuals with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or diabetes; a program in which expectant mothers can speak with registered nurses; and MyHealth Advantage, in which reminders and messages are tailored to each customer. Additionally, employers can use an online wellness education toolkit called Time Well Spent to share information with staff.

Like other wellness program providers, Anthem had seen a trend in smaller companies avoiding wellness programs when they were first rolled out years ago.

“Some small employers have shied away from workplace wellness because they feel like they don’t know where to start and are afraid of what it will cost to offer a wellness program to their employees,” Larrivee said. “However, the thing about wellness programs that a lot of people don’t realize is that it is the level of the commitment to the program – not the dollars spent on the program – that is the single biggest predictor of success. You can spend all sorts of money on programs, motivational posters and giveaways, but if company leadership isn’t championing and supporting the wellness program, the company will see very little return on investment.”

It takes time as well as commitment to build long-term results.

“Before a small business launches a wellness program, the company’s leadership team should ask themselves, ‘Are we building a wellness program, or are we building a culture?’” said Larrivee. “Programs are temporary – a culture of wellness is much more enduring. Employees have to understand that the wellness program is an investment the company is making in them as people – not something they’re doing for a short-term boost to the bottom line. If that message is delivered and then backed up by action, that company will have much greater success than a company that puts a few posters in the lunchroom but fails to live the values of a well workplace.”

A check-up for your workplace

What do your employees need the most? Are there smoking or weight issues? Are too many doughnuts and vending-machine snacks being consumed? Does your staff spend too much time sitting at a desk? Could they benefit from the increased physical and mental health that comes with a better diet and enough exercise, thereby reducing or preventing illnesses and chronic conditions?

“Employers will likely want to combine the tools their insurer offers with some home-grown wellness initiatives – such as walking clubs or healthy recipe groups – to create a program that works for their employees and their workplace,” said Larrivee. “There are lots of possibilities and your insurer as well as local nonprofits such as the American Lung Association, American Cancer Society and others may be able to help you get started through their programming. It may be bringing in a chef to do a healthy cooking instructional and then have healthy potlucks every Friday.”

Small businesses also can consider employee-driven wellness teams, Larrivee said.

“Executive leadership is essential to getting things off the ground, but engaging your staff is the best way to help them shape the culture and ensure buy in. And best of all, these don’t have to cost any money.”

He cited several examples such as simply removing doughnuts from morning meetings, having manager-led walking meetings, and handing out pedometers for a small fee per person.

Larrivee added that more employers, small and large, are including their employees’ families in wellness activities.

“The health actions of those around us affect our health, just as our health decisions have an impact on our friends and family members,” he said.

What about 2014?

What’s going to happen in 2014 when health care reform kicks in? Will employers get more, or less, involved in employees’ health and insurance? What should they get ready for?

“It’s anyone’s guess at this point,” said Hanson. “We have a presidential election next year, and more political races after that. There are some states refusing to even begin discussing or designing their state ‘Health Insurance Exchanges.’ You have some states like Massachusetts who are about six years ahead of us in terms of exchanges with now proof that they are not working as intended, and then many other states, Wisconsin included, who are in the beginning stages of a Web-based portal for shopping for insurance.”

Anderson also feels it’s difficult to discuss the 2014 changes because so much is unknown at this point.

“If we move to a community-rated model of rating for health insurance, I think we will be taking a step backwards,” she said. “If the rate is the same for a person who leads an unhealthy lifestyle as someone who is health conscious, we are going to see less people working on wellness. Then health care utilization and costs will continue to climb and the population will suffer from illnesses that can be prevented with a healthy lifestyle.”

Larrivee speculated that the health care reform could unintentionally lead to some employers not implementing wellness programs because they won’t think it’s necessary.

“No matter what the effect of health care reform, the smart employers will realize that quality wellness programs are an employee recruitment and retention tool. Top talent wants to work in an environment that is flexible and supportive of their health and well being. We do not expect that to change, no matter what the law.”

Individual improvement for the whole

With health insurance being a major expense for an employer, it makes sense to add a wellness program to the mix. Network Health Plan sees more employers doing so, regardless of the size of the group. Healthier individual lifestyles can lead to a healthier workforce.

“This will result in lower absenteeism and fewer job-related injuries, as well as lowering the risk profile of the group,” said Anderson. “By reducing health-risk factors, individuals become more desirable to insurance carriers and will be offered better rates.”

And it’s no longer as difficult a task for smaller employers to implement wellness into the workplace.

“Small businesses should not feel discouraged or intimidated by the prospect of creating a culture of health in their workplaces,” said Larrivee. “Nobody has corporate wellness 100 percent figured out. Creating a culture of wellness is not that different from improving your own personal health – there are no shortcuts and you have to keep experimenting and trying new things until you find what works for you.”

Robin Driessen Bruecker has more than 15 years of experience in feature writing and marketing communications. Contact her at