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.