Get Well Soon

Get Well Soon

Employers spring for preventative healthcare now to reduce costs later.

By Beth Milligan

When President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010, he – in addition to requiring all Americans to secure health insurance coverage by 2014 – enacted a series of immediate changes to the industry. Chief among these was a requirement that all new health insurance plans provide cost-free preventative services to consumers, including screenings, exams, vaccinations and counseling.

But even before the sweeping legislation change, many employers across the country – including several in Traverse City – were already embracing preventative healthcare solutions for their employees.

Today, local employers say that wellness programs, fitness incentives, lifestyle counseling and reduced insurance premiums for employees who meet certain health standards are not only contributing to happier and more productive workforces – they’re saving companies money in the long run.

"Certainly, there’s a correlation between offering employees wellness programming and decreased costs," said Gretchen Overbeek, a human resources manager who oversees wellness benefits at Traverse City-based insurance firm Hagerty.

Overbeek says that funds invested by the company in staff health and fitness in the short term is recouped long-term through reduced illness and absenteeism, as well as greater energy and output from employees.

"Our focus has always been on helping the people who work here become even better, both personally and professionally,” she said. “Wellness is a part of that betterment. The [financial ROI] is a bonus.”

Hagerty offers a broad range of perks and benefits designed to encourage employee health, including an annual $150 wellness reimbursement (applicable to gym memberships, weight loss groups, smoking cessation programs and other health-related plans), an on-site fitness facility, bike repair reimbursement for cycling commuters, 5K training programs and a farm consortium, in which employees can order groceries from local farms and have them delivered weekly to work.

The company also provides staff a choice between conventional chairs and exercise balls for seating and traditional or stand-up desks for workspace.

"Different employees may be looking for different things, and we’ve had overwhelmingly positive feedback on the fact our benefits are flexible," said Overbeek, who notes Hagerty’s on-site gym has attracted more than 3,500 class visits and 130 full-time memberships since the beginning of 2013. "We’ve had a number of success stories already. People are losing weight and becoming healthier."

From a company public relations perspective, staff health is perhaps nowhere as important as in the medical field. At Munson Medical Center, Wellness Coordinator Lynsday Douglass works with insurance provider Priority Health to select benefit plans for hospital staff that include preventative healthcare coverage and extended wellness programming.

In 2013, for the second year in a row, Munson enrolled in Priority Health’s HealthbyChoice Incentives program, which rewards employees meeting certain program requirements and/or exhibiting measurable improvement in health with lower out-of-pocket insurance costs and deductibles. To qualify for the program, staff must complete an online health risk appraisal and visit a physician to establish a baseline of fitness, working from there to improve any trouble areas in their wellness.

Douglass agrees that "a healthy workforce is a productive and happy workforce," but she also acknowledges that working in an industry where staff are regularly advising others on their health requires a higher company standard for wellbeing.

"We’ve spent a lot of time [internally] talking about the fact that we’re role models for our patients and for the community," Douglass said, noting that 89 percent of the 5,300 Munson employees and spouses who qualify for HealthbyChoice Incentives are currently participating in the program. "We have to start by improving the health of our own population first."

Healthcare experts agree that preventative care and wellness programs can go a long way toward reducing long-term patient health risks – and costs. Dr. Laura Hill, a private family practice physician at Brookside Family Medicine in Traverse City, says 70 percent of chronic diseases stem from preventative causes, including heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

"Having access to preventative care allows patients to better manage those causes," Hill said. "Having work options – such as on-site classes or healthy cafeteria choices – help reduces the barriers for people to access those resources. Not to mention, people are often motivated when their peers or co-workers are becoming healthier."

Ryan Liabenow, founder and CEO of The Kavanah Group, a national healthcare consulting firm with operations in northern Michigan, says employers who are considering investing in wellness programming strictly for cost reduction purposes should know that a return on investment requires diligent follow-up on staff progress.

"Many programs are underserved or underused or not implemented correctly, so there can be a lack of employee engagement," he said. "If you’re looking to save money, you need to monitor statistics – you need to get periodic reports from physicians or choose programs that measure progress, so there’s accountability. Otherwise there’s no way to prove your investment is actually working."

Companies who view cost savings as a tertiary or bonus benefit to improving employee happiness and health are most likely to find wellness programming and preventative care satisfactory, Liabenow said.

"Sixty percent of Americans now get their healthcare through their employers," he said. "These companies are uniquely positioned to address the needs of the workforce. There’s huge potential for [these types of programs] to have a positive impact in the long run."