Employers target wellness programs for health savings — and recruitment purposes

Photo courtesy of R&H Construction

Corporate wellness programs diversify, seek measurable outcomes.

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Ten years ago, Oregon’s workers comp company SAIF launched a wellness program that now centers on a platform called Virgin Pulse. It  allows employees to track steps and healthy habits, and the company discounts the health insurance premiums and deductible if employees engage in the program, which now boasts a 99% participation rate.

“There are many reasons our health insurance rates change,” Combs says. “But we seem to be showing very positive results.”

Most companies that offer wellness programs have yet to define a return on investment for their money. But they’re looking for it, if only to determine how closely linked wellness-program engagement is to health plan costs.

Clearly, though, wellness programs are here to stay, ROI or no. Developed decades ago as a way to address specific employee physical health, the programs take many forms today as employers seek to increase workplace engagement, reduce insurance claims and enrich the benefits package for recruiting and retention purposes.

“At first, it was about delivering affordable wellness program services,” says Benjamin Prinzing, co-founder of Kadalyst, a Portland wellness programmer. “Now the conversation has moved to more aggressive population health management strategies and leveraging predictive analytics to drive down unnecessary benefit utilization, increase consumer benefit education and improve health outcomes.”

Wellness programs are unregulated except by case law and certain elements of the Affordable Care Act, which has attempted to prevent employers from using wellness activities such as biometrics screenings, weight loss and smoking cessation to “punish” employees who don’t participate or don’t show improvement.

For instance, the ACA discourages plans that increase premiums for smokers and obese employees who don’t take part in a wellness plan aimed at “helping” them.

That said, getting employees on board is one of the biggest challenges wellness programs face. Incentives are critical.

The Park Academy’s Morris, for example, says the success of its wellness program — part of the Real Benefits health plan — is that it’s all “carrot” and no “stick.” All individuals and companies in the network can participate in an activity challenge. A wearable device tracks their activities, and Real Benefits sends out a weekly wellness email with the latest standings by company and individuals. They compete for prizes like iPads and cash — incentives paid for by Real Benefits. R&H Construction was an early and enthusiastic adopter of wellness programming.

That history gives Karen Swanzy the freedom to experiment with options. The company offers an ongoing menu of activities, events, classes and seminars. The company budgets $250 per employee each year for wellness.

“We are very open-minded about what we offer,” she says. “I don’t decide. It’s employee driven.”

A recent addition: financial wellness coaching. Like other elements of the wellness plan, this had to be adapted to R&H’s segmented employee population.

“We’ve got 30 construction trailers out in the field at any given time,” she says. “They went out into the field and talked to our construction managers about 401K planning.”

“They” is Human Investing, a Lake Oswego-based 401K consulting company. Meeting employees “where they are at” has been the key to success for Tori Geter, who runs a wellness program for UA Local 290 of the Plumbers and Steamfitters Association.

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The union-management-funded retirement trust for Local 290 contracted with Geter in 2013 to improve engagement among its retirees in union-sponsored activities. She needed a way in to the tight-knit group and found it in a monthly retirees meeting at their Tualatin hall.

Geter had a carrot: The local told the retirees that, if they participated in the sessions, they would receive a check at the end of the program period based on attendance. Historically, the meetings were maxing out at 12 retirees — to Geter’s surprise, the sessions drew an average of 45 retirees and their spouses. She tinkered with the design, and in the second year, 87 came; 175 the year after that.

“At first they came for the money. But now they love those classes. And they are directing the program. When you are talking about making an employee population healthier — and that includes retirees — you can’t look one year or five years down the road. It’s really about culture change. That’s the only way to better manage a company’s health care costs: Change your workforce culture to one of health.”

That may be true, but companies are just starting to measure the wellness return on investment — and it’s a tricky business. Rojita Raghubansh, senior vice president for HR and risk management for Harsch Investment Properties, thinks the return on investment can and should be tracked. But she is still pondering how to do that. A key factor, she says, should be how wellness programs target the specific needs of the company’s employees.

Raghubansh found that, while some activities involving competition and nonprofit support — e.g., a company walk to raise money for charity) — were scoring in the mid-80s in participation, others — yoga, Pilates — were in the 10%-20% range. That is not acceptable, she says.

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“We’re looking at a different program. It’s time to step away from yoga and mindfulness and stress-related activities and really help our employees.”

Activities with a competitive or nonprofit component will be among those. So will financial wellness, based on repeated employee requests for guidance in financial planning.

“We have an advisor from Standard Insurance who talks to people throughout our service region,” Raghubansh says. “Every time he goes somewhere, we see an increase in 401K investment. We need more of this.”

SAIF’s Combs says she uses several metrics to help measure the success of its program.

“At first we just measured by participation and feedback from employees,” she says. “Now we can also track results [through a portal], including daily steps, annual biometric screening and self-report health assessment questionnaire results. We can look year over year at the results of all our employees and how we are doing with things like health insurance.”

(SAIF employees can earn up to $400 a year by participating in the activity tracking program.) From biometrics to financial counseling — these aren’t your father’s wellness programs. According to Prinzing, whose company offers wellness options to employers such as Consumer Cellular and Mentor Graphics, wellness programs are poised to become even more elaborate — and expansive.

“The industry will move toward a more holistic approach and even offer new benefits such as incentives toward taking real vacations, identity theft protection services, student loan repayment benefits and even pet insurance,” he says.

Why would companies go this route?

Health plans continue to get more competitive, and plan managers will see the advantage of insuring employers who are healthier and use their benefits less, Prinzing says.

Equally important: Wellness is part of a larger employee lifestyle trend, fueled by baby boomers and millennial interest in self-care and emotional well-being. In a tight job market, employers need to differentiate themselves from the competition. But don’t just follow the trends.

The key to a successful wellness program, Prinzing says, “is to market programs based on your demographics — and measure success.”

A version of this article appears in the July/August issue of Oregon Business.

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