Wellness programs draw more interest

New federal incentives, heightened awareness get businesses’ attention

[caption id="attachment_29741" align="alignright" width="294" caption="Above left: Victoria Cendejas (right) gets a gentle finger prick from Lab Services representative Patty Kinworthy, to check her glucose level or blood sugar. "][/caption]

SANTA ROSA – Growing numbers of employers of all sizes in the North Bay are embracing wellness programs for their employees. A recent survey of commercial insurance carriers by the Business Journal revealed a common theme of business clients seeking information or actively developing wellness programs both to manage employee health care costs and prepare for the impact of health care reform.

Employer wellness efforts were already well under way in the North Bay long before Congress passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2010. Employers generally recognize that supporting their employees’ health makes all-around good business sense. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Wellness Council of America estimate that every $1 invested in wellness programs saves businesses $3 to $7 in costs.

[caption id="attachment_29742" align="alignright" width="288" caption="Claudia Ritchie received a blood pressure check from Jeanne Powell, RN, a nurse educator for St. Joseph Health System-Sonoma County."][/caption]

Larger North Bay employers such as Amy’s Kitchen, Becoming Independent, JDS Uniphase, and La Tortilla Factory, implemented worksite wellness initiatives in recent years in partnership with the Healthy Eating, Active Living Community Health (HEAL) Initiative, a program of Sonoma County Health Services.

“For companies that do wellness programs, this can lead to reduced absences and higher productivity,” said Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board. “Employees who are healthier and more active have less chance of developing chronic diseases. Encouraging things like walking, healthier eating, and bicycling to work are also morale builders for employees and companies. And as the economy recovers, wellness programs can help companies with talent attraction and retention.”

In 2009, Sonoma Health Action, a public-private health council convened by the Sonoma County Public Health Department, identified workforce wellness as one of the key strategic initiatives for improving overall community health. One key objective of the “iWork Well” initiative is for 75 percent of Sonoma County employers to implement employee wellness policies, programs, or activities toward achieving the County’s 2020 health vision.

(www.sonomahealthaction.org/ww is the site for Health Action’s worksite wellness initiative.)

Now, among the provisions of federal health reform law set to go into effect this year are employer wellness incentives that include $200 billion in grants for small business wellness programs. These grants will be available over a five-year period to small businesses with fewer than 100 employees that did not already have wellness programs in place as of March 23, 2010.

Additionally, beginning in 2014, employers will be able to offer health benefit discounts of up to 30 percent to employees who participate in employer-sponsored wellness programs, an increase from the current 20 percent limit.

The Northern California Center for Well Being, which offers wellness resources and services for employers of all sizes, is seeing increased interest in employer wellness programs, according NCCWB executive director Alena Wall. The center’s wellness services range from providing a free, online do-it-yourself toolkit for employers to consulting with employers to develop custom wellness programs and contracting with companies to deliver on-site services.

“I don’t know what is specifically driving employer wellness activity, whether it’s federal health care reform incentives or increased awareness due to activities of Health Action that possibly has triggered business leaders,” Ms. Wall said.

One company taking advantage of NCCWB’s resources is REACH Air Ambulance, which recently launched a pilot wellness program at its Santa Rosa headquarters. REACH has 100-plus employees in 12 bases spread across a broad swath of the western United States. Most of these employees are paramedics, nurses, pilots, and dispatchers working 12- or 24-hour shifts.

“Those kinds of jobs working night shifts and odd hours make it challenging to maintain health,” said Rhoann Ponseti, director of marketing for REACH. “This was a primary consideration for doing a wellness program.”

Under the leadership of CEO Jim Adams, the company convened a wellness committee made up of employees and managers from all departments. A NCCWB facilitator worked with the group to set up a program that enables employees to choose from a menu of services and classes such as smoking cessation, nutrition, and exercise as well as other services including wellness assessments.

“We know our business has a high stress aspect to it,” Ms. Ponseti said. “We believe this is going to help our employees on every single level: their physical fitness, stress, and overall happiness.”

TLCD Architecture of Santa Rosa implemented its wellness program two years ago. As a smaller firm with 45 employees, TLCD drew upon the NCCWB’s free resources to launch its “TLCD Fit Force.” Since then, the firm’s wellness program has continued to evolve to meet changing needs, with various elements such as facilitating employees walking groups, promoting the use of stairs over the elevator, providing healthier lunch and vending machine alternatives, offering after-hours group activities such as hiking and kayaking, and hosting competitions to encourage bicycling or walking to work.

“We’re a good example of a small, organic movement. We’ve implemented at a higher level than many companies our size but nowhere near what larger companies can do,” said Marina Starkey, the firm’s marketing director who spearheaded the program. “Our firm wanted to introduce a low key approach to get people focused on health and fitness.”

“As an architectural firm, we want to attract young talent out of school by having a very innovative work place but as a small employer we can’t be like the googles and yahoos that offer every benefit under the sun.”

That’s one reason the Health Action Workforce Wellness Initiative Workgroup came up with the Healthy Business Recognition Program, set to launch mid year, as a way to educate and enlist small- and medium-sized businesses while creating a community norm for wellness. The program will offer multiple levels of certification to employees to recognize their efforts across a range of wellness policies and activities.

“We needed to make this simple enough for smaller businesses to pursue -- challenging yet achievable,” said Mr. Stone, who co-chairs the Health Action worksite wellness workgroup with Ms. Wall. “Not every company is able to do things like give free health club memberships. The average size of business in Sonoma County is six employees. This is a benefit driven program for companies and employees.”

St. Joseph Health Systems--Sonoma County implemented its own Workforce Health Initiative in 2009 to promote preventative health care throughout its service area.

To date, employer relations specialist Jeannie Calverly has worked with 89 employers, among them Korbel, Medtronic, TriVascular, Agilent Technologies, Whole Foods, and Community Action Partnership of Sonoma County. The SJHS-SC program has provided free health screening and health education services to 1,300-plus employees directly and reached an estimated 58,000 people indirectly through community and onsite workplace events.

Ms. Calverly noted that employer interest is definitely gaining momentum. “I am anticipating growth,” she said. “This is a well-needed resource, especially in the current economy where employers have few employees with more to do.”

The program offers health risk assessments to employers of all sizes at no charge, producing a report card that analyzes how much a company has spent on health care claims associated with their particular risk areas and how much they could save by implementing a wellness program.

“HR people love that,” said Ms. Calverly. “Health risk assessments are key because we can track the company’s overall progress.”

Sonoma Health Action and St. Joseph Health Systems will host a Workforce Wellness Symposium for human resources and safety managers as well as insurance brokers on March 29, 4 to 6 p.m., at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. To attend, email RSVP to: Jeannie.Calverley@stjoe.org.

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