Businesses play a key role in improving employee health — and bringing down costs

Anne Warhover

It’s no secret Colorado businesses pay a hefty price for Coloradans’ health – with health insurance premiums representing the most obvious and visible cost.

Health insurance premiums will increase by an average of 9.4 percent for Colorado businesses in 2012, projects the Lockton Benefit Group. That’s on top of the more than $7 billion Colorado companies spent on health care premiums in 2010, according to the Colorado Division of Insurance.

Setting premiums aside, Colorado businesses also pay a hidden price for poor health. A study published in the American Journal of Health Promotion found that obese employees are about 75 percent more likely to experience high rates of absenteeism than healthy weight employees.

Although Colorado is often cited as the “leanest” state in the nation, rising obesity rates weigh heavily on our economy. According to one study, Colorado spent $1.6 billion on obesity in 2009. The study takes into account medical expenses, sick days and health-related productivity costs associated with obesity.

Meanwhile, results from the 2011 Colorado Health Report Card show that Colorado’s obesity rate rose from 19 percent to 22 percent in one year – marking the first time the state crossed the 20 percent threshold.

Released annually by the Colorado Health Foundation in collaboration with the Colorado Health Institute, the report card highlights a number of factors that could ultimately help and hurt Colorado’s health and economic well-being. For example, while Colorado made some encouraging progress in health insurance coverage for adults and children, it continues to lag behind in prenatal care and dental care for children.

In this less-than-ideal economic climate, how can Colorado businesses reduce the growth of health insurance premiums and increase productivity by keeping employees healthy?

Research suggests we could improve health and rein in costs by investing in prevention practices that stop disease and promote good health in communities and for employers.

According to The Trust for America’s Health, an annual investment of $10 per Coloradan in community based prevention efforts could save more than

$232 million annually in health care costs after five years — a $5.05 return for every $1 invested. Despite potential cost savings, prevention efforts represent less than 5 percent of every dollar spent on health care in the United States.

How can Colorado businesses get involved in prevention?

They can implement programs to keep workers healthy and productive while reining in costs. That means instituting such workplace wellness programs as health risk assessments, tobacco cessation, nutrition education and gym memberships and administering onsite flu vaccination clinics for employees and their families.

Working with businesses, our nonprofit partners and other health and health care stakeholders, we’re hopeful that future report cards will begin to show an uptick that will over time make Colorado the healthiest state in the nation.

The goal is to increase the number of Coloradans with health insurance; make sure they have access to quality, coordinated care; and encourage healthy living.

By investing in effective prevention policies, business and civic leaders can be assured of a sound “return on investment” that will help Coloradans become healthier and more productive.