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John Hageman, Forum News Service, Published October 18 2013

Employers look to save on medical costs by promoting healthy living

GRAND FORKS – The physical nature of their job makes construction workers susceptible to injury.

Employees at Grand Forks-based Opp Construction are no different. But a couple of years ago, the concrete paving company took a simple step to reduce minor injuries: daily stretching.

The routine, along with other wellness initiatives the company has adopted, have helped keep employees healthy, according to Vice President Sally Miskavige.

“As far as incidents go, we’ve seen a drop in our strains and sprains,” she said. “Whether that’s from the stretching program or the education, it’s hard to pinpoint.”

As employers across the country prepare for health care changes under the Affordable Care Act, many are looking to wellness programs to help reduce insurance premiums and worker absenteeism.

“We’ve seen a great uptick in the number of companies that are wanting to implement wellness programs as well as those who are wanting to enhance an existing program,” said Don R. Powell, president and CEO of the American Institute for Preventive Medicine.

Cutting costs

Workplace wellness programs, which can include on-site vaccinations, discounts to local gyms and health screenings, are aimed at preventing potential health problems. For some, that could mean saving money on insurance premiums by taking care of problems sooner rather than later.

A 2010 study by Harvard University professors found that for every dollar spent on a worksite wellness program, companies could save on average $3.27 in medical costs and $2.73 in absentee costs.

Thirty-five percent of respondents in a Kaiser Family Foundation survey released in August said wellness programs are a “very effective” cost-saving tool for their business, which was the best response among other similar strategies.

“We’ve clearly seen over the years in many peer-reviewed studies that worksite wellness programs do save money,” Powell said. “How much time it takes for that to occur will vary based upon how comprehensive the wellness program is.”

Powell said the number of employers who said they had some kind of wellness program increased from 67 percent in 2012 to 72 percent this year. But it’s unclear whether that’s directly tied to pending changes in health care.

“I can’t say there’s a direct cause and effect,” Powell said. “But clearly, I think people’s awareness around health care has become more pronounced under health care reform.”

Health reform

Whether the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s signature piece of heath care legislation, will have an effect on a particular business will depend on an array of factors.

Companies with more than 50 full-time employees will have to either provide coverage or help employees buy insurance through an online marketplace starting in 2015. Small businesses aren’t required to buy health insurance, but can shop for plans on an online marketplace.

Bon Wikenheiser, state director of the North Dakota Small Business Development Center, said individual companies still are sorting out how the new health care law will affect them, if at all.

Molly Soeby is owner of WelCore Health in Grand Forks, which helps develop wellness programs for businesses in the area. She said she hasn’t heard from many companies that are interested in wellness programs as a result of potential effects from the Affordable Care Act.

Nevertheless, she is seeing more interest overall in the kind of services she provides, especially from companies with self-funded insurance plans in which employers pay claims with collected premiums rather than paying a set amount to an insurance company.

“They have a huge interest in keeping their costs lower, and they can directly lower their costs by doing more preventive services,” Soeby said. “So, they seem to have more of a vested interest in it.”

Keeping employees healthy

Miskavige said Opp Construction’s push for health programs wasn’t in response to the new health law. She said the company’s insurance plan will largely stay the same under the Affordable Care Act.

Instead, Miskavige said it was simply a desire to have healthier employees.

Among their initiatives is a weight-loss challenge to keep employees active over the winter months, when they are laid off before the next construction season. Opp also publishes health education notes in its newsletter, Miskavige added.

“We just really wanted to make sure (our employees) are educated about eating well and leading healthy lifestyles and (we are) doing what we can to encourage that,” she said.