As employers grapple with skyrocketing health care costs, they are increasingly turning to initiatives in the workplace to encourage wellness and good health.
Many companies say the plans — which range from in-house gyms and clinics to health assessments and free flu shots — increase productivity and reduce sick days. And many employers are wielding financial sticks to go along with the fitness carrots in order to lower health insurance premiums.
Some national companies charge higher insurance premiums for employees who smoke, are overweight or have high cholesterol, and in some cases, the employee share of insurance premiums has increased by $2,000 annually.
However, The Department of Labor is researching wellness initiatives to ensure they do not violate labor laws that prohibit discrimination.
Steve Berkshire, a business professor at Regis University, said that as long as companies are careful to offer the programs to everyone, equally, there is no violation of the law.
“The only way it could be a violation is under Title 7, which creates discrimination based on disability,” he said. “As long as they are careful to create alternatives for people who are unable to use a gym, for instance, they should be fine.”
The trend toward tying wellness initiatives to insurance premiums isn’t new, he said, but it is increasing as more companies search for initiatives that could lower premiums and create a more productive work force.
“As costs go up, it’s a way to control the premiums somewhat,” Berkshire said. “So you see more companies encouraging employees to take care of themselves.”
A study by the Integrated Benefits Institute shows that the wellness concerns of business leaders go beyond the costs of health care.
“CFOs recognize that the effects of ill health impact their company’s economic stability and extend to lost work time,” the study said. “Unfortunately, a majority of companies are not provided the necessary information to help them understand how benefits can be an investment in work force productivity.”
The Business Value of Health survey included responses from 343 senior financial executives at large and small companies. About half the respondents estimated that lost work time has reached “critical stages” and they said they were willing to take strong measures to reduce the financial costs associated with poor health.
One Colorado Springs company that has been focused on employee health for decades is USAA, which has a free health clinic that offers preventive services and flu shots and a gym.
“We went to a nonsmoking campus some years ago,” said Vic Andrews, the company’s president. “For months before we did it, we offered smoking cessation programs for all our workers and their families. For us, healthy workers just make good business sense.”
The USAA cafeteria offers healthy menu choices and employees who take advantage of those choices are rewarded with free fruit.
Andrews said that the programs offered by USAA are more about the “culture” of the business.
“This is just part of the way we do business,” he said. “Good health is emphasized throughout the company — not just flu shots and gym classes, but in other areas like ergonomic desks.”
The YMCA is one local organization that assists corporations with their wellness goals, said spokeswoman Wendy Brez.
In the Pikes Peak region, the organization works with both companies and insurance providers.
“Some companies will pay for the entire membership, others only a portion,” Brez said. “And the insurance companies will get involved as well. Everyone realizes that when people are healthy, health care costs are lower.”
Insurance providers create programs
Kaiser Permanente has pilot wellness program in School District 20 and The Classical Academy that provides weight, cholesterol, blood pressure and a variety of other screenings to teachers and staff.
The program, which will be available to all members next year, also provides an interactive, online “diary” that helps participants keep track of their progress in reducing factors that lead to ill health.
“We also offer total health assessments, Weight Watchers discounts, online lifestyle programs and health coaches,” said Debra Lemke, a Kaiser prevention specialist.
United Healthcare offers a healthy pregnancy program, online health assessment and a series of six-week programs that focus on weight loss, smoking cessation, stress relief and healthy aging.
While most insurance companies offer some sort of health plan to lower costs for themselves and their clients, for businesses it’s about more than that, according to Integrated Benefits Institute.
“The emphasis on health is about increasing productivity, reducing absenteeism,” the report said. “It’s about the bottom line.”