Rewards-based Health Plans Aim to Keep Workers Lean

Local employers discover that giving employees incentives to stay healthy helps everyone’s bottom li

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.”    

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