expected to be wrought by the Affordable Care Act is that employees will have to take on a greater responsibility for their own health, and the costs associated with it.
It’s already happening. Research by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that, in 2014, 80 percent of all covered workers had to pay an annual deductible, the amount they pay out of pocket before insurance kicks in. The average deductible was $1,215, up 47 percent from the $826 average in 2009, the study said.
Jason Mahler, a large-market strategist with insurance giant AON, said at a recent seminar in Albuquerque that employers will be putting more emphasis on encouraging employees to espouse healthier lifestyles in order to reduce their need for health care services, make them more productive in the workplace, and help cut the volume and size of insurance claims.
As a result, workplace wellness programs are becoming more common, but some employers are also using financial incentives to encourage employees to take up healthier lifestyles.
“We are encouraging our members to take more responsibility for their health and wellness. If employees or employers move to a high-deductible health plan, then they need tools to see where their health care dollars are going to serve them better,” said Becky Kenny, spokeswoman for Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Mexico.
AON Health Transformation Strategist Aparna Niroola said employers can nudge workers to take more responsibility for their health by offering them opportunities to exercise, giving guidance on nutrition and monitoring key health measurements, such as blood pressure and blood glucose levels.
The speakers said technology, such as wrist-worn devices that can track statistics on steps, calories burned and sleep quality, or contact lenses that can measure blood glucose levels, would likely play a greater role in employer wellness programs of the future.
Many employers in Albuquerque have already embraced the wellness concept with programs that encourage employees to lose weight, stop smoking, get fit or avoid the risk of flu.
While mostly available at larger companies, there are options for businesses with 20 or fewer employees, as well, said Linda Reiter, senior director of clinical quality and medical management for NM Health Connections, which began offering insurance in late 2013.
Health Connections has a partnership with the Wellness Council of America to provide smaller employers with educational programs about the benefits of exercise and healthy nutrition. These can be combined with information about workplace safety and stress or injury reduction through stretching techniques, Reiter said.
Kenny said Blue Cross also offers some wellness programs to small employers.
One new trend, Reiter said, is to offer online “virtual” wellness campaigns, where employees can log in and form teams to meet specific goals, like losing weight. “It’s something that small companies should think about,” she said.
Helping make it worthwhile
Companies that already have wellness programs typically offer incentives, such as the chance to lower premiums, discounts on health club memberships, free health-risk assessments, flu shots or cash rewards.
Wells Fargo employees, for example, can earn up to $800 toward a health savings account by completing an extensive health assessment and education program.
Presbyterian Healthcare Services employees who smoke pay higher monthly premiums, but the company offers employees and their eligible dependents free access to the American Cancer Society’s Quit for Life smoking cessation program.
Public Service Company of New Mexico will reimburse up to $750 a year for certain tobacco quitting aids and employees who remain tobacco-free for several months can receive a cash reward, said Ryan Baca, a PNM media representative.
Baca credits her employer’s wellness programs with helping her to lose 65 pounds and become an avid cyclist. The company offers employees things such as discounted weight watcher classes and free biometric testing. There is also an on-site gym at the Downtown office that employees can use for a nominal monthly fee.
“After the ACA passed, we realized change was coming and we really had to change our programs to emphasize wellness because, in the past, we had seen significant increases in health costs,” said PNM Human Resources Manager Laurie Monfiletto.
She said the wellness programs and coordinating care for employees with chronic health conditions has enabled PNM to save $3 million on its health plans and claims over three years.
Health and Wellness specialist Shane Schumann at the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority
said the agency’s wellness programs’ focus has been on results, such as helping employees lose weight or bring their blood pressure under control. That has helped the agency save money on insurance.
“Now that seems to be shifting toward what benefit it brings to employees. It’s more focused on the person,” Schumann said.
He said field employees attend mandatory wellness meetings conducted by a trainer before or after work where they learn about nutrition, exercise and techniques to avoid workplace injuries. Office employees can attend free classes at Sports & Wellness gyms. Yoga classes recently became part of the wellness offerings.
Customer service representative Mellisa Cuellar tried the yoga class and took advantage of the free gym classes, something she said she probably wouldn’t have done if her employer didn’t offer them.
Keeping employees motivated to participate in wellness programs is a challenge, said Silvia Gentile, human resources manager at SolAero Technologies, which bought Emcore’s space photovoltaics business in December.
“Some things work initially – and then they don’t,” Gentile said.
She said the company has tried offering incentives, such as an airplane trip for the winner of its “biggest loser” weight loss contest.
Other incentives companies mentioned included the chance to lower insurance premiums or win prizes like an iPad or gift card.
“Often it comes back to culture of the company,” said Eric Weinstein, executive vice president and managing director of AON in Albuquerque. “Wellness has to be ingrained throughout to have that lasting impact.”