For NJ Employers, Wellness Programs Seen as Way to Bolster Bottom Line

Andrew Kitchenman | May 16, 2013 | Health Care
Experts and company executives discuss strategies, best practices for improving workers’ health

New Jersey employers gathered yesterday to swap tips and learn strategies for developing wellness programs that can improve their employees’ health – and reduce company costs in the long run.

Sharon Seitzman, president of provider-owned insurer QualCare Inc., cited studies showing that employers can reduce medical costs by $3.27 for every dollar they spend on workplace wellness initiatives and by $5.60 for every dollar spent on prevention programs.

Wellness programs can include a wide range of activities, from seminars on nutrition and exercise to organized exercise classes held during or after work hours.

Representatives of a number of New Jersey firms talked about ways to set up workplace wellness programs and to encourage employee participation.

Seitzman noted that unhealthy lifestyles increase the risk of heart disease, cancer and strokes, the three leading causes of death in New Jersey. She said 14.3 percent of New Jersey adults and 30 percent of children in the state are obese, slightly less than the national averages.

“The office or the workplace is an ideal setting for reaching a large segment of the population that may not be exposed to or engaged in health programs,” Seitzman said, adding that educating employees about what their blood pressure and cholesterol levels mean can be valuable in changing behavior.

Seitzman said outcome-based incentives, such as reducing insurance premiums for maintaining a cholesterol level below 200, can be a powerful tool. Ultimately, employers should encourage workers to bring home what they learn about healthy living, noting that employer health plans cover family members.

At a time when the 2010 Affordable Care Act has increased funding for both preventive care and healthy-living programs, employers can benefit financially and reduce long-term costs, experts said.

But Ray DeRosa, president of the wellness-program firm V Well Health, said it could be difficult for some employers to commit to such programs, since the “return on investment” may not be apparent until the program is successful.

DeRosa encouraged companies to establish short-term goals to measure progress in enrolling workers and having them participate. With the high cost of healthcare, small changes in the behavior of workers can result in major reductions in their risk for disease, DeRosa noted.

“If you can bring any of those risk factors down by 5 percent, there’s going to be huge changes in your company,” DeRosa said.

DeRosa encourages employers to survey employees to find out what kind of programs they are interested in, as well as what incentives are likely to entice them to participate.

He encouraged companies to launch a walking or running club with as few as two or three workers, then concentrating on expanding participation. He added that any successful program must start with senior managers participating and that companies should form wellness committees that include a wide range of workers.

“Health and wellness doesn’t care if you’re a CEO or a janitor, everyone has the same issues,” DeRosa said.

He also suggested that company officials can build successful wellness programs by allowing employees to spend up to a half-hour exercising.

The daylong series of events, attended by about 150 executives and managers, was hosted by the Employers Association of New Jersey.

Some employers on hand at the Hilton Parsippany said they already use a variety of incentives to encourage participation in wellness programs, ranging from reduced insurance premiums to professional massages.

Simple steps suggested include encouraging workers to use the stairs instead of elevators and mapping out a one-mile walking route that workers can use.

Krystina DeLuca, an official with ShopRite supermarket operator Wakefern Corp., said her company increases charitable contributions when more workers participate in the firm’s running club, which has grown to more than 300 participants.

Wakefern also offers a variety of exercise classes. After launching several classes that primarily drew female workers, the company decided to add a “boot camp” class that attracted male workers. In order to give employees a sense of “ownership”in the classes, the company charges $25, but then awards a $25 ShopRite gift card if the worker completes the class.

“What we’ve come to realize that the employee also has to have some skin in the game,” DeLuca said.

Amber Wilson, associate benefits manager with Parsippany-based outsourcing services company Solix Inc., said her company decided to launch a wellness program after finding that a big chunk of insurance costs was for medications for preventable conditions like high blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

‘”That’s really what struck home,” Wilson said.

Eastern Propane Vice President Peter Gilman advised that it’s important for employees to know that their health information will be kept confidential.

Kay Hedges, human resources manager for electrical-components manufacturer Thomas & Betts, said her firm has been expanding its wellness program, and has seen multiple benefits.

“Companies are realizing that if you have a healthy workforce, you have a happy workforce,” said Hedges, who has been with the company for 50 years.