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Sometimes created by an employer, sometimes purchased from and run by a health insurer, “there is a strong appetite in the business community for wellness programs,” said Eduardo Lara, vice president of marketing and product development for Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey. “They can help to improve productivity, boost morale, reduce absenteeism and contain health care costs.”

A wellness program usually has two components: lifestyle management, which helps employees drop unhealthy habits like smoking and lack of physical activity before they get sick; and disease management, which helps employees manage existing chronic health problems such as diabetes and heart disease.

Lifestyle management takes the form of on-site exercise facilities or programs; rebates or discounts on outside gym memberships; and access to programs for addressing food addiction, smoking cessation and other issues. Disease management includes systems that remind workers to attend doctors’ appointments, take medication on schedule and eat healthier.

Wellness programs are not mandatory, and usually offer carrots, rather than sticks, to encourage participation. For example, the wellness programs offered by insurer UnitedHealthcare gives monetary reimbursements for healthy behavior, according to Paul Marden, CEO of United Healthcare NJ, which insures 1.7 million people in the state. Employees who take a biometric health screening, which includes BMI, cholesterol and blood pressure measurements, get $75, as do those who take part in a phone-based health coaching program, which can be done with a nurse, a nutritionist or another health care provider, depending on employees’ needs. UnitedHealthcare’s online wellness platform, RALLY, gives employees a way to keep track of their health info and take part in challenges – such as participating in a walking program, or pledging to eat at home more often – and get monetary rewards for it.

“We seek to motivate and engage employees … in a fun way, and if they want to participate, great,” said Marden, who said programs on average costs less than 1 percent of the premium paid for health insurance. Nationwide, UnitedHealthcare estimates just under 100,000 members take part.

But are wellness programs worth the money? Health care giant Johnson & Johnson reported that, over the span of 15 years, its wellness program helped decrease the number of smokers at the company by two-thirds and cut the number of those with high blood pressure in half, according to a 2010 report in the Harvard Business Review. J&J also reported a $250 million savings on health care costs, and a return of $2.7 for every dollar spent.

A 2012 study by the Rand Corporation, looking at 600,000 workers at seven large employers, found wellness programs reduced health care costs, on average, by $30 per member per month. The money-saving effect was biggest in the area of disease management, which produced 87 percent of savings, creating a return on investment of $1.50 for every dollar spent. The study said that nearly half of all employers with at least 50 employees offered wellness programs, and that half of those who didn’t said they wanted to introduce one.

Smaller employers may create informal wellness programs, but that can come with some risk.

There are privacy laws concerning health information, and wellness programs must be compliant with the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to Wardell Sanders, president of the NJ Association of Health Plans. Programs must be sensitive to what employees with disabilities can and can’t do.

“Vendors know the ins and outs of the laws regarding the programs,” said Sanders.

Of course, a wellness program is only as successful as its participation rate.

Jim Dunleavy is director of rehabilitation services at Trinitas Regional Medical Center in Elizabeth, and head of the facility’s wellness programs for employees. Trinitas offers their employees a fitness center, and programs such as “Biggest Loser”-style weight loss contests, healthy cooking demonstrations, walking clubs and others. And he is currently looking into contracting with employee health insurers to run a more structured program that provides incentives for participation.

“The entire industry is always looking for the best tool to get people motivated to move,” said Dunleavy, “and take better care of their health.”

 

 

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