Updated May 22 at 5:40pm

Fiscal incentives making health a no-brainer

'We like to be leading by example.'

By John Larrabee
Contributing Writer
At Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island, staffers can apply for reimbursement checks for bicycle repairs, yoga lessons and health-club memberships. And soon, other workers in the state could be enjoying the same benefits, because the health-plan provider is advising clients to adopt a similar wellness program. More

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HEALTHIEST EMPLOYERS

Fiscal incentives making health a no-brainer

'We like to be leading by example.'

Posted:

At Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island, staffers can apply for reimbursement checks for bicycle repairs, yoga lessons and health-club memberships. And soon, other workers in the state could be enjoying the same benefits, because the health-plan provider is advising clients to adopt a similar wellness program.

Two years ago, in an effort to keep premiums under control, Blue Cross set out to develop a wellness program that could be adopted by employers throughout the Ocean State. The goals would be educating people about health risks and encouraging lifestyle changes. Needing a pilot group to test the program, Blue Cross chose it’s toughest members – it’s own 1,100-plus employees.

The experiment has proven to be a huge success. “It’s part of our worksite culture now, part of day-to-day life at Blue,” said Kim Cormier, director of consumer activation. “We like to be leading by example.”

The numbers tell the whole story. The participation rate is now 92 percent. When the program first began, 30 percent of employees had self-reported conditions such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol; that number has been cut to 23 percent. There has been a 12 percent increase in enrollment at the office fitness center, and a 25 percent increase in the number of employees who exercise there regularly.

“What’s more, we’ve received emails from a number of our people telling us about their success losing weight or making behavioral changes,” said Ashley Briggs, compensation analyst.

The program has been a financial success as well. Medical costs for those who take part in the wellness program are 30 percent lower than the costs for those who don’t.

The program is built around incentives. Employees who participate will see no increase to their health-insurance-premium contribution in 2012. Skipping the program means a 30 percent hike. To qualify, they and their spouse must visit their doctor and their dentist every year, and fill out an online personal health assessment, a brief questionnaire on medical history and lifestyle.

There are other incentives to push the staff to eat better, exercise more and adopt other lifestyle changes. By taking part in such activities, employees can earn up to 100 points, which they can turn in for a $100 incentive bonus, or a $100 tax-free contribution to their health savings account.

Some reward programs double as office morale boosters. There are regular raffles for prizes that can improve health and wellness, including bonus checks for $500, free fitness-center memberships, and a Wii home video console, for exercise. The most popular prize is a company parking spot.

Blue Cross got a head start on developing a wellness program by setting up a fitness center at their Providence headquarters in October 2009. It includes equipment for cardiovascular and strength-training workouts, and there are regular fitness classes as well. There is a membership fee, but it’s waived for those who log in 25 workouts in a three-month period.

Blue Cross extends financial encouragement to those who choose other fitness programs as well. Employees who join another gym, take yoga classes or enroll in Weight Watchers can apply for a $100 reimbursement. “A few employees have taken advantage of our bike-to-work program,” said Briggs. “They’re eligible for a $20 reimbursement every month to pay for bicycle maintenance and repairs.”

As part of the focus on nutrition, there have been changes to the menu at the office cafeteria. “If you’re looking for healthy-eating options, they’re very easy to find,” Cormier said. “We offer fruit, raw vegetables, baked chips rather than fried, healthy entrees and sandwiches, and a salad bar.”

Several years ago, Blue Cross established the Health & Wellness Institute, a for-profit company that develops and administers workplace wellness programs; it turned there when it launched its own campaign. The program now includes 150 free classes and activities for employees during the day and after work. Among the offerings: blood-pressure screenings, carbon monoxide screenings for smokers, tobacco-cessation programs, office flu-shot clinics, nutrition classes that teach how to incorporate more fruit and vegetables into your diet, and exercise programs such as Pilates, yoga, and Zumba. To get the word out on what’s happening, Blue Cross relies on email and office presentations.

At work or at home, employees can log on to a wellness portal, a website that provides tools and information. “It offers video content on topics like nutrition and stress management, and tracking tools that let you know how many calories you’ve consumed that day, or how many you’ve used exercising,” Cormier said.

They can also telephone a wellness coach, a professional trained to provide advice on fitness, weight loss and healthy eating. There’s no limit on how many calls are allowed, as the focus is on helping people achieve their goals.

Blue Cross also provides staffers with another telephone program that connects them to counselors who can provide advice on emotional issues, substance abuse and stressful personal problems. “Employees can turn to them if they have to talk to someone about a problem, and sometimes [the counselors will] come to the office to do a presentation,” Briggs said. “It’s a great resource.”

Though the program is still new, the gains can already be measured. Blue Cross and the Health & Wellness Institute are already passing on what they have learned to other Ocean State employers. “We have clients who have very similar programs,” Cormier said. We’ll consult with them to determine what their wellness program should be, and the Health & Wellness Institute will provide the services.” •

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