Rewards-based Health Plans Aim to Keep Workers Lean

Local employers discover that giving employees incentives to stay healthy helps everyone’s bottom li
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When former King County Executive Ron Sims, now deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, launched the Healthy Incentives Program in 2005, he started biking to work. He lost an impressive 60 pounds and dramatically reduced his blood pressure, cholesterol levels and body mass index (BMI). “And he did all of this in a public way,” says Brooke Bascom, communications director for King County’s Employee Health and Well Being Program. “He did not ask employees to do something that he wasn’t willing to do himself.”

In light of health care reform, more local employers are following Sims’ lead, pulling out all the stops with rewards-based health plans aimed at keeping workers lean, and betting that an ounce or two of prevention will go a long way toward staving off chronic disease and paring down health care costs.

In Healthy Incentives, the cost of an employee’s medical insurance depends on how committed the person is to the three-tiered system—gold, silver and bronze—with the out-of-pocket cost predicated on a person’s agreement to try to become healthier, not on actual results. From belly dancing to gardening to Latin-rhythm-inspired Zumba classes, King County workers have embraced the workplace wellness culture. More than 15,000 workers who have agreed to an extensive self-assessment and a subsequent action plan have qualified for coveted gold status, says Bascom, earning them big breaks on insurance costs. Gold-status participants pay an annual family deductible of about $900, while participants who qualify for the less strenuous bronze status have to shell out about $2,400 per year. The difference is significant for individuals as well. Single gold-status members pay a $300 annual deductible, while bronze-level members pay more than $800.

In a relatively short time, the program has netted huge financial benefits, and Healthy Incentives participants are not the only ones saving money. Employee contributions in the 2010–2012 benefits years, says Bascom, will save taxpayers from spending $37 million for increased deductibles, co-insurance and co-pays.
Even more impressive is that King County workers have made huge strides in improving their overall health: They are smoking less, eating healthier and limiting alcohol consumption. What’s more, healthy people are staying healthy while those with compromised health seem to be getting better, according to 2009 results.
ClearPoint (clearpoint.com), a Seattle-based employee benefits consulting firm, is at the forefront of consumer-driven health care with on-site biometric testing and year-round coaching on exercise, nutrition and stress management for employees. For the past five years, the company (which was acquired by San Diego–based Alliant Insurance Services in 2008) has signed up more than 30,000 participants in rewards program, including about 10,000 in a ClearAdvantage program Premera Blue Cross. “We have seen a reduction in large catastrophic claims by catching things as early as possible and preventing the deterioration of employee health,” says ClearPoint managing director Kevin Overbey.

The convenience of on-site biometrics is like preventive medicine, says Overbey. Workers can monitor their weight, blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol and triglycerides just steps from their workstations. Employees who take part in the program pay less for their health plans than those who opt out. Local companies taking part in ClearAdvantage include WatchGuard Technologies, Isilon Systems and Mike’s Hard Lemonade.

With nearly 3,000 employees in Washington and Alaska, Mountlake Terrace–based Premera Blue Cross believes that paying attention to basic health indicators can go a long way toward preventing illness. Premera has introduced a Know Your Numbers program that encourages staff members to keep tabs on biometrics such as blood pressure, blood sugar, total cholesterol and BMI.

Last spring, Valley Medical Center in Renton launched an initiative through Tangerine Wellness (tangerinewellness.com). It’s a voluntary weight-management program offering employees free online tools that allow them to log their weight, count calories, track exercise and even communicate with coworkers. At the end of each quarter, worker teams that meet defined weight-loss goals earn reward points that can be redeemed for jewelry, electronics, sporting goods and cookware. They get reduced rates at The Fitness Center of Valley Medical Center, and participants pay less for medical insurance than workers who don’t.

So far, Valley Medical has seen positive weight-loss changes in its employees, says Barbara Mitchell, senior vice president for human resources and marketing. She notes that in the first quarter last year, participants reported a collective weight loss of 1,504 pounds, an average of more than three pounds per employee.

Few can argue the potential benefits to a company’s bottom line and to workers themselves when they are exercising more, eating well, and drinking and smoking less. But how much privacy are employees giving up when they embrace a company’s reward-for-wellness plan? “We stress privacy of information,” says Overbey. “We protect the employee’s information and assure that all aspects are HIPAA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] compliant and that the employer does not see individual results.”

While some critics claim that reward-based plans penalize individuals who opt out, Overbey counters that the opposite is true: As individuals get healthier, he says, insurance rates decrease for the entire group.

And then there’s the fun factor. Kathleen Stine, the clinic supervisor at King County’s North Public Health Center, takes part in a Zumba class at work and says, “It’s more like a night out at a club than exercise.”

Stine adds: “People seem to enjoy the convenience of an exercise class right in the building where they work. Folks have also cited the camaraderie as a key benefit—whatever issues might be going on in their day-to-day work are all left outside the door when Zumba starts.”    

Are High-Rise Wood Buildings in Seattle's Future?

Are High-Rise Wood Buildings in Seattle's Future?

Is Seattle ready for high-rises built of wood after 80 years of concrete-and-steel buildings?
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When architect Joe Mayo walks into his office, he’s steeped in Seattle history. Mahlum Architects is located in Pioneer Square’s 1910 Polson Building, which served as a warehouse for gold mining equipment during the Klondike Gold Rush. Over the past 100 years, the building has also housed offices and artists’ lofts, and survived two arson fires. So it’s remarkable to see the original old-growth Douglas fir columns still rising from the floor and spanning the ceilings. “It creates a pretty amazing environment,” says Mayo.

Large buildings framed with wood from big trees were commonplace in Seattle and in other parts of the country in the early 1900s. But changing building codes and diminishing availability of large timber put an end to this style. Today, wood buildings are usually one- or two-story houses, while our apartments, hotels and office buildings are nearly all built from concrete and steel. The six-story Bullitt Center on Capitol Hill, which opened in 2013, is the first mid-rise building in Seattle constructed of wood in the past 80 years.

With the advent of a new wood building material called cross-laminated timber (CLT), it might one day become one of many such structures. Proponents say the benefits of building with CLT could be significant. CLT can be used to create buildings that are as tall as 30 stories (and beyond, some architects say) that are better for the environment and aesthetically pleasing, and can be quickly built, help create jobs in economically depressed regional timber towns and are as long-lasting as other buildings. Some research even suggests that wooden buildings offer health benefits for occupants.

Mayo says the material makes sense for our region. “Architecture should feel like it’s a part of a place,” he says. “We’re in the great Northwest, with some of the tallest trees in the world and the best timber in the country, and we have a long history of building with wood.”

But while building codes in Europe and in some other countries have changed to embrace the new material, and CLT buildings as tall as 10 stories are in use in Australia and London, U.S. building codes lag behind. Seattle recently became the first city to allow the use of CLT in construction, but that use is currently limited to five stories for residential buildings and six stories for office buildings.

“The City is open to proposals on larger buildings, but we do have to verify that fire safety and seismic issues have been addressed in the designs,” says Bryan Stevens, spokesperson for the City of Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections. That’s because, while these issues have been resolved for buildings in other parts of the world, the U.S. requires domestic testing if building codes are to change.

Washington State University is one participant in a multi-institutional program with the National Science Foundation and the Network of Earthquake Engineering Simulation that is testing how mass timber systems like CLT fare in earthquakes. Hans-Erik Blomgren, a structural engineer in the Seattle offices of the international engineering firm Arup who is a participant in the research program, believes engineers can solve this puzzle. “There’s no technical reason we shouldn’t be designing a building with this material,” he says.

U.S. fire codes have also long prevented the use of combustible materials such as wood in mid- and high-rise buildings, but engineers say code changes to allow for the use of CLT are also achievable. To understand how resistant to fire large pieces of wood can be, proponents suggest thinking of how hard it is to start a bonfire with really big pieces of wood. Not only are such pieces hard to light, but they burn slowly.

In theory, developers could propose larger CLT buildings before codes are changed, but they would have to invest time, money and coordination to get this new building type through Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections, with no guarantee that their designs would be approved. “It takes a very special project and specific client and certainly a very ambitious design team to take it on,” says Mayo.

Unless that client steps forward, builders will be waiting for the International Code Council (ICC) to work through the fire and earthquake issues and develop the necessary code changes before mid-rise and higher CLT buildings spring up in the city. 

“We know there’s been a lot of interest in this construction type,” says Stevens, “so we’re trying to be responsive to the demand without giving up safety.”

As with so many innovations, another problem for developers is that material costs for CLT can be high because there are so few North American CLT manufacturers. Developers wait for the price to go down, but manufacturers need more demand for a product. To alleviate this problem, some businesses and legislators are working to help bring CLT mills to Washington state. An Oregon lumber company, D.R. Johnson Lumber, in Riddle, Oregon, recently became the first certified manufacturer of CLT for construction material in the U.S.

Clt was developed in the 1990s by researchers in Austria and Germany who were looking for a use for pieces of surplus wood. The material is created by layering smaller pieces of wood together into a kind of sandwich that offers the strength and insulation found in the massive timbers of the past, and that can be used for the walls, floors, roof beams and posts that make up a building. 

One of the most touted aspects of this material is its role in fighting carbon emissions. Trees absorb carbon and use energy from the sun to grow, which makes them a lower carbon choice than concrete or steel, which not only don’t absorb carbon, but require much more carbon-emitting energy to manufacture. Trees are also a renewable resource, as long as they are harvested from a sustainably managed forest. And CLT can be made from otherwise underused or damaged woods, such as the vast forests of domestic pine that have been killed by mountain pine beetles.

Another selling point, particularly in urban areas, is that CLT panels are prefabricated—bring them to the building site, and your building goes up quickly, with less noise, pollution and traffic delays than with other materials. The eight CLT stories of London’s nine-story Murray Grove apartment building went up in nine weeks.

But building with CLT is not all about practical considerations, says Susan Jones, who owns the Seattle architecture firm Atelierjones and designed her family’s home as the first (and so far only) CLT home in Seattle’s Madison Valley in 2015. The material itself—in the case of her house, CLT primarily from white pine and left unpainted—is a sensual pleasure, from the quality and patina of the wood to the subtle pine smell in the house.

“It’s been incredibly satisfying to live with it,” Jones says. “That’s what architects are asked to do—we create beautiful spaces for people. What’s better than to immerse yourself into this incredibly rich natural environment of wood?”

Here in Washington, there’s enough raw material to immerse us all in that environment. But only a handful of projects in the state have used the material so far—for example, in Jones’ CLT house, in the walls of the Bellevue First Congregational Church sanctuary designed by Atelierjones and on a building project at Washington State University in Pullman. In Oregon, Joe Mayo recently worked on the design for what is to be the first use of U.S.-made CLT on a two-story building project, using panels manufactured by Oregon’s D.R. Johnson.

There are a few other regional CLT building projects in the design process now. In June, Washington state granted design-build contracts to several architects, including Susan Jones of Atelierjones and Joe Mayo of Mahlum, for 900-square-foot classrooms at several elementary schools in western Washington, to be constructed by the end of 2017. 

Another building, Framework, a 12-story building with retail, offices, and housing in Portland, Oregon, is currently in the design process, after a team, which includes Blomgren as its fire and earthquake CLT engineering specialist, won a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) tall wood building competition created to encourage innovation with the material. Winners for 2015, including the Portland team and a team in New York City, each received $1.5 million for the research and development phase of creating buildings using CLT and other engineered wood materials.

At the University of Washington, associate professor of architecture Kate Simonen is leading another USDA-funded study to determine the relative environmental impact of using mass timber in commercial office buildings in Seattle, which follows on other studies indicating that this kind of building will have a lower carbon footprint than other building materials. 

While she’s cautious about reaching premature conclusions in her study, Simonen thinks it might not be a bad idea to start working now to get the structures built in our region. 

“We don’t have all the answers now, but in order to get those answers we need to help lead innovation,” she says. “It makes sense to take some risks in our region to advance a building material that supports our region.”