Enterprise Report

Athens Clarke-County Government joins the Worksite Wellness Trend

Behind a small grey door hidden on the back side of Georgia Square mall, a group of sweaty individuals enthusiastically share high fives and cheers as they work through six training stations in a gym the size of a basketball court.

Echoing over the sound of clinking weights and pounding feet, is the voice of Athens-Clarke county wellness trainer Caroline Beegle. “Heart rates are up,” yells Beegle, “we are going hard, we are strong. I promise it will pay off–it is worth it.”

This is the Wednesday training team of the Athens-Clarke County Wellness program’s boot camp. The participants are different ages, different fitness levels, wear different brands of clothing and are all different shapes and sizes. They do not look to have much in common, but they share a desire to get healthy, and the same health insurance provider, the Athens-Clarke County government.

The Athens-Clarke County (ACC) Wellness program is a worksite wellness program implemented through the county government’s employee health insurance. It is a local example of a growing trend in employer involvement in workers’ health.

The program “is dedicated to enhancing the mind, body, and spirit of ACC employees and designed to empower them to take personal responsibility for their health and well-being,” according to the ACC Wellness program manual.

“The biggest benefit I think honestly is health and your sense of well being,” said Joe Zachmann, an Athens-Clarke County Transit and Public Works employee, and ACC Wellness participant. “Also camaraderie, having people that you know working out and having someone to make you accountable.”

Through his participation with the ACC Wellness program Zachmann has lost over 80 pounds and says he is a lot healthier.

Zachmann attends the ACC Wellness Healthy Hours education programs and participates in ACC Wellness cycling classes and the fitness boot camp. His  participation in the ACC Wellness program has helped Zachmann improved his health and get off costly diabetes medication.

Worksite Wellness Programs

“Broadly, a workplace wellness program is an employment-based activity or employer- sponsored benefit aimed at promoting health-related behaviors (primary prevention or health promotion) and disease management (secondary prevention),” stated the RAND corporation in a market review of the United States Workplace Wellness Market, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Wellness programs are becoming more popular in companies as employers look for new ways to balance the increased cost of employer-based insurance that has resulted from provisions of the Affordable Care Act.

“The 2010 Kaiser/HRET survey indicates that 74 percent of all employers who offered health benefits also offered at least one wellness program,” reported the RAND corporation. “Among larger employers (defined in the Kaiser/HRET survey as those with 200 or more employees), program prevalence was 92 percent.”

Wellness programs are designed to improve employees’ health  in order to reduce negative health conditions that would be costly to the company. These programs use health prevention and health improvement methods to promote healthy lifestyle changes for their employees.

“Maintaining a healthier workforce can lower direct costs such as insurance premiums and worker’s
compensation claims, and positively impact many indirect costs such as absenteeism and worker productivity,” according to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention.

Athens-Clarke County Wellness Program

The ACC Wellness program came about out of an evaluation of the Athens-Clarke County insurance program and has been used to prevent employees’ health care from becoming costly for the county.

“We have caught several diseases in advance of them getting to a stage where it would be a very costly claim for us,” said Lisa Ward, compensation and benefits manager, in the ACC Wellness promotion video. “It has helped definitely in terms of the health insurance cost for the county.”

The ACC Wellness program is designed to identify health risk before the onset of a serious health condition, and promote healthy living among employees that can be carried out through workers’ entire lives.

“Besides just your typical weight loss, besides just looking at numbers, I can just tell by looking at my boot campers, their clothes are getting [more baggy] as they are exercising,” said Beegle. “They are just getting healthier they’re getting dedicated, they’re getting excited about learning new moves and finding out that they can do some of these things.”

In addition to the boot camp and other exercise programs, ACC Wellness offers health seminars, health screenings, flu shots and 24-hour access to the ACC Wellness gym.

While participants and leaders in the ACC Wellness program agree on the program’s benefits and success, the overall effectiveness of worksite wellness programs is unclear.

Cost Benefit of Wellness Programs

“The hidden reality is that the programs themselves are lucrative and a relatively easy sell into an increasingly health-conscious culture,” reported Forbes in its initial evaluation of the RAND corporation’s Workplace Wellness report. “The challenge is that the scientific evidence to support real efficacy just isn’t there.”

Fordes cited the RAND report’s evidence that the implementation of the wellness programs reviewed showed little evidence of significant cost savings for employers. “Employers are often equally bullish on wellness programs – but few have any scientific data to support all the rosy projections,” reported Forbes. The RAND report found that only 44 percent of companies surveyed had a method for evaluating the effectiveness of their wellness programs, and only 2 percent had outlined detailed saving estimates.

It is difficult to accurately measure the exact cost effectiveness of wellness programs because they are often preventative programs. Cost saving from these programs has to be evaluated on a long-term scale and savings are often dependent on the participation and quality of the wellness program.

“In fact, workers who participated in a wellness program had health care costs averaging $2.38 less per month than non-participants in the first year of the program and $3.46 less in the fifth year,” reported Reuters on RAND’s study. The study declared that this cost saving was not statistically significant.

Though the RAND report did not find strong evidence of health care savings for participants in the early implementation of wellness program, evidence suggest that the real cost saving of worksite wellness programs will not be clear until programs have been in place for a significant amount of time with a high percentage of employee participation.

“It is not clear at this point whether improved health-related behavior will translate into lower health care cost, but there is reason to be optimistic: We find decreases, albeit not statistically significant, in hospital and emergency department use, which are important cost drivers,” stated RAND in its final report. “The sustainable improvements in health status ought to translate into a lower rate of chronic disease and thus long-term reductions in health care cost.”

Companies will see the greatest return on investment in worksite wellness programs if they can reach a high level of continued participation from a majority of their employees. To do this some companies are using monetary incentives to encourage employees to join and continuously participate in their worksite wellness program.

“As an incentive for active participation, Wellness POINTS can be accumulated and redeemed for rewards,” states the ACC Wellness program manual. Wellness points are earned in the ACC Wellness program through participation in exercise activities and nutrition seminars. The points can then be translated into reductions on employees’ health insurance premium cost.

The Affordable Care Act and Worksite Wellness Programs

The Affordable Care Act will increase the deductions employers can offer wellness program participants on their health insurance premium. On Jan. 1 companies can offer employees participating in wellness programs subsidies as high as 30 percent, a 10 percentage point increase from the previous maximum deductions of 20 percent .

Besides direct savings on health insurance wellness program, participants get additional health cost benefits.

“My cholesterol has gone down. My triglycerides went from 517 to 107. My blood pressure has gotten better. I have gotten off diabetes medications, so that right there saves me money with prescriptions,” said Zachmann.

For the participants in the ACC Wellness program, saving money is just a bonus. It is apparent on the faces of the boot camp participants as they cool down from their workout sharing high fives and laughing together that the real benefit is having a program that makes getting healthy possible and enjoyable.

“[It] saves them money, but more importantly it is just good for them overall that their health is improving and their body is functioning how it should,” said trainer Beegle. “I get a lot of great success stories. People either stick with me in the boot camp or they move on to greater things like running marathons even–that is my favorite part.”

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