Wellness Programs Promote Health and Reduce Costs

The University of Alaska's benefits might seem overwhelming and complex, especially to new employees. They range from full medical and long-term disability coverage to a variety of retirement plans and life insurance. Mike Humphrey and Erika Van Flein of the Statewide Benefits Department manage contracts with 14 vendors, with an annual total of over $120 million in benefits to UA employees. Statewide HR strives to ensure that UA benefits are competitive, comprehensive and cost-effective for staff, faculty and the university.

As of October 2008, the university had about 4,200 employees and 5,000 dependents enrolled on the health plan. Each individual has his or her own needs, lifestyle and expectations that the Benefits Office must consider. The communication effort itself is challenging, as clear and updated information about the various benefits plans, programs and rates must be provided on a continuing basis to all employees, their spouses/partners and campus and Statewide departments.

One of the greatest challenges is cost containment. Health care costs are escalating nationwide. The university's increase in total health care claims has been in the range of 10 percent annually. This compares with an annual health-care cost increase of 7 percent on a national basis and 15 percent in the state of Alaska, according to Premera Blue Cross. With the university's health care costs at a FY09 level of $58 million, under any projection UA and covered employees will face significant increases in the future.

Until national health care reform is achieved, employers have only a few options to address escalating health-care costs:

*  Shift costs from UA to employees, for example, increase annual employee rates and/or increase deductibles;

* Change delivery by expanding the network of preferred providers with better rates;

* Reduce benefits;

* and reduce costs, either through new contracts or by increasing the overall good health of employees and their dependents.

Of those items noted above, the last option is the most positive and may hold the most promise. UA's wellness programs offer a great opportunity for employees to learn how they can become more health conscious and in turn help with the overall health plan costs. Health and wellness programs help reduce the prevalence of health risk factors, improve awareness of the consequences of poor health practices, assist those with multiple health risks, and provide a long-term solution for coping with the high rates of increases in health plan costs.

Studies show that in any health program, about 20 percent of individuals have chronic health conditions including asthma, diabetes, heart conditions and arthritis that drive up the total cost of a plan. While it's important to keep these chronic conditions from getting worse, the best way to control costs is to keep the other 80 percent of plan participants from developing health problems that are avoidable, especially those caused by obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, stress and sedentary lifestyles. 

Wellness Programs: Phase One
In 2005, UA put into place its first wellness program.  Largely virtual, this program included e-information, literature on healthy habits and an online health risk assessment.  Based on answers on the health risk survey,  wellness coaches made follow-up phone calls. 
The results showed a positive impact on employee health. Risk factors such as depression, high blood pressure, stress, tobacco and alcohol use and inactivity were reduced.  When the three-year contract was completed and the return on investment (ROI) was calculated using national statistics, it was determined that the $711,000 program led to a cost avoidance of $1.53 million. This is a ROI of 2.1 to 1.
It was clear to the UA Benefits Office that wellness initiatives brought results.  But improvements were needed.  Data was only collected once a year, summary reports were slow in coming, most employees did not like the virtual approach and health plan costs were still increasing too fast.
Wellness Programs: Phase Two
The assessment by the Benefits Office of that first phase of wellness programs was that health care is an extremely personal issue and many employees would be more comfortable dealing with a physician or other health provider in a confidential, face-to-face setting.
To develop an enhanced wellness program that built on this concept, UA began a partnership with  Anchorage-based Wellness Initiative Network (WIN) for Alaska Inc.  WIN was founded in 1998 by lifelong Alaskans Summer Bass Neuroth and Shannon Brady Garman. Their programs focus on health and wellness education. WIN’s program offered to UA employees includes “UA Health in Action,” which features online initiatives; “Get the Point,” which offers prizes for tracking wellness activities; sponsored wellness breaks; an online wellness center; monthly newsletters; and Individualized Health Planning Sessions (IHPs).  In addition, WIN provides UA and the Joint Health Care Committee with aggregate (privacy-protected) information in monthly and annual reports and makes regular presentations.
The IHP program was initially offered to Anchorage and Juneau employees.  The program features six face-to-face sessions with an experienced wellness consultant, the development of a unique plan of action, goals and tracking using biometric screenings. The initial IHP program was utilized by more female than male employees. The program report showed that the interests and goals of the participants, such as reducing stress, losing weight and increasing physical activity, mirrored the risk prevention goals of the university.
In November 2008, the IHP program was expanded to Fairbanks employees as well.  Over 700 employees statewide enrolled in the program. Additionally, in February and March, mass biometric screenings were offered to employees. The “Know Your Numbers” campaign included measurements of weight, BMI, cholesterol and blood pressure. Those measurements were entered into the employee’s confidential online account for the incentive program “Get the Point” and were also included in the new health risk assessment, now called the Personal Wellness Profile, administered by WIN for UA employees in April and May.
The overall goal of the UA Health in Action program is to assist employees and their dependents with the modification of lifestyles. The program encourages activity, healthy eating habits, strength training and awareness of biometric data.  In April 2009, WIN counted over 13,000 “touches” with employees, including:

·         Over 5,360 people visits to the Health in Action web site; 
·         882 people enrolled in the Get the Point incentive program; 
·         360 employees participating in the biometric screenings;
·         and nearly 400 wellness breaks for UA departments. 
A new ROI report for these UA programs should be ready in August. Statewide HR hopes the numbers show a significant savings to our health-care plan. But the most important numbers to the hundreds of employees who enrolled in the Get the Point or IHP sessions are the numbers of pounds lost, cholesterol points reduced, minutes exercised, whole grains consumed, fruits and vegetables eaten and other important indicators of improved health and wellness. Good job!

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