Incentives for wellness programs included in health care reform

With uncertainty surrounding how the roughly 2,700-page law will impact benefit costs for employers, fostering a healthier workplace, and in turn healthier employees, as a way of driving benefit costs down, was an overriding message at the State of Reform health policy conference.

To grow healthy work environments, insurance providers are encouraging employers to put health initiatives into action termed wellness programs.

Lynn Klassert, director of sales for Swan Employer Services in Anchorage, said wellness programs come in a range of forms, from simply replacing traditional office snacks with low-calorie options to individual goal-setting plans.

His office, he said, separated into teams with specified health goals, sprouting a small inter-office competition.

“This country was kind of built on competition and that model seems to work. I certainly enjoyed it quite a bit,” Klassert said.

Health care reform pushes for everyone to be provided coverage, but it doesn’t aim to aggressively control cost. Jennifer Bundy-Cobb, vice president of the Wilson Agency in Anchorage, said incentives provided in the law for enacting wellness programs in the workplace are one place the act considers the root of our health care conundrum — simply put, too many people getting sick.

Bundy-Cobb said encouraging an employee to live a healthier lifestyle sounds good on the surface. The challenge lies in committing to a program that will be expensive at first, but ultimately show results.

“The first thing that’s going to happen if you implement a really in-depth wellness program with some teeth behind it, is everyone’s going to go to the doctor or have a blood-draw with a panel done,” Bundy-Cobb said. “That’s going to be expensive.”

It’s those initial costs that have prevented employers from putting plans that could impact an employee’s premium or deductible, Bundy-Cobb said.

For employers willing to bear the front-end cost of a strong wellness program she said the rewards could go much deeper than seeing a drop in health benefit costs.

“Maybe I’ve created some moral in the workplace because my employees know I really care about them, and I’ve just improved engagement,” Bundy-Cobb said. “Maybe I’m going to stop 10 percent of them from quitting. Maybe I cut down on the number of sick days taken. Those are things that are much more real, frankly, in terms of numbers and potentially even easier to calculate.”

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

11/11/2016 - 2:49pm