Workplace wellness incentives and disincentives predicted

Andrew Webber expects a growing proportion of businesses to offer programs that promote a healthier work force — and counter rising health insurance costs and improve productivity in the process.

But at the same time, employees who don’t participate in such wellness programs could face disincentives, including higher insurance premiums.

“Over time, I think some tough love will be part of this as well,” said Webber, president and chief executive officer of the National Business Coalition on Health.

Webber was among three industry leaders who discussed work place wellness programs during a media conference call held in conjunction with the Colorado Culture of Health Conference in Denver.

The call also included Donna Marshall, founder and executive director of the Colorado Business Group on Health, and Maren Stewart, president and CEO of LiveWell Colorado.

The national and state business groups represent purchasers of health care services. LiveWell Colorado is a nonprofit organization committed to reducing obesity and promoting healthier lifestyles.

Webber, Marshall and Stewart agreed employers play an important role in promoting health because people spend so much time on the job. Moreover, employers remain the largest providers of health care coverage. By one estimate, employers cover 157 million Americans.

Webber said the United States pays twice as much for health care as other industrial countries, but the U.S. ranks 37th in one measure of health, Webber said.

Employers pay for the effects of poor health in terms of not only higher insurance costs, but also in higher employee absenteeism and lower productivity, he said. “Employers pay in lots of ways for the poor health of America’s population.”

That puts employers in a position not only to demand more value in health care coverage, but also play a role in promoting healthier lifestyles, Webber added.

National and state legislation offers some help, he said. Federal health care reform legislation established a $15 billion public health and prevention fund to support grants for community based organizations to implement health improvement strategies. In Colorado, the State Legislature enacted a law that allows insurers to provide discounts to employers that offer wellness programs.

Marshall said those wellness programs need not be expensive. “You don’t have to be a large, large employer.” Offering programs that help employees quit smoking or simply providing healthy foods at meetings instead of doughnuts can make a difference, she said.

Stewart said LiveWell Colorado has developed a framework for workplace wellness programs and offers assistance to employers in planning, implementing and evaluating those programs.

The return on investments in workplace wellness programs vary, but generally result in reduced health care costs and employee absenteeism as well as increased productivity, the three said.

Citing statistics reported in the American Journal of Health Promotion, Stewart said wellness programs reduce health care costs by an average of 26 percent, sick leave by 28 percent and worker’s compensation insurance premiums by 30 percent.

Webber said wellness programs typically result in lower absenteeism and higher productivity. But curbing rising health care insurance premiums constitutes a more long-term prospect, he said. “That will take time.”

Effective wellness programs depend on a number of factors, Stewart said, among them strong support from management and good communication with employees.

In addition to offering incentives to participate in wellness programs, employers soon could impose disincentives for not participating, Marshall and Webber said.

Marshall said she knows of some employers who refuse to hire workers who smoke, although that hasn’t yet developed into a more widespread trend. “We haven’t seen a large scale jumping on that bandwagon.”

Marshall said she also expects more employers to require health risk assessments for employers to enroll in benefit plans. The results of such assessments would be used to  make employees aware of potential health problems and help them address those issues, she said.

Webber said he foresees the development of two types of health care benefits plans: a traditional plan and a nontraditional plan that involves health risk assessments and participation in wellness programs.

Employees who participate in the nontraditional plan would pay lower insurance premiums. “That’s a huge incentive that gets people’s attention,” he said.

Despite rising costs and increasing regulation, Webber and Marshall expect employers to continue offering health care benefits as way to recruit and retain quality employees.

A work force, particularly a healthy work force, constitutes an asset that can give employers a competitive edge, Webber said. Moreover, most employees still prefer to obtain health care coverage through employers, he said.