Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Not your parents' wellness program

Employers increasingly roping in dependents to embrace wellness

Employee Benefit News

By Lydell C. Bridgeford

December 1, 2008

...[To] drive down health care costs, employer-sponsored wellness programs must zero in on dependents covered under the health plan. It's a tough challenge, given that employers typically don't have direct access to covered dependents. ...

Strategic incentives

"That fact that dependents are not often onsite is a hurdle in getting dependents to participate in wellness programs," explains Bob Soroosh, director of benefit administration at Affinia Group, Inc., an Illinois-based company that produces highway replacement products.

One way to overcome that hurdle is by offering a paper version of a health assessment to employees and dependents that can be mailed to their home, Soroosh says. "We also give dependents the option to complete their biometric screenings during one of our onsite health screenings or at their doctor's office."...

In 2006, [Affinia] started offering employees a $1,000 reduction in their annual premium contribution if they agreed to participate in a health prevention program.

The company provides additional incentives for employees or dependents who complete specific wellness programs.

"That means an employee can receive additional contributions to their health reimbursement account when they, or one of their dependents, complete one of these programs," Soroosh notes. ...

Cash and gift cards are always good, says David Jacoby, vice president of business development at WellCall, a San Francisco-based wellness solution provider.

Employers also may want to consider knocking additional dollars off an employee's health insurance premium contribution if his or her dependents sign up for a disease management program or wellness initiative.

Holding health fairs during the weekends or after work also allows employers to get that one-on-one contact with dependents. Such events can result in dependents taking health risk assessments and biometrics screenings.

Factoring in childhood obesity

Employers that focus on dependent wellness mainly set their sights on dependent children who are over the age of 18, and spouses and domestic partners, says Melissa Vaughn, a strategic account manager at StayWell Health Management, a health management program provider.

However, experts agree that getting young kids directly involved in workplace health management programs is tough but necessary. They stress that employers' wellness initiatives should always include a component on childhood health and fitness.

"You want to coach the parent about healthy behaviors kids ought to be engaged in. The message might get across much better if you are coaching the parent to provide that information to the kid," says Jacoby.

Yet be mindful that kids imitate their parents, says Kay Curling, vice president of HR, compensation, benefits and HRIS at SI International, a Va.-based information technology services company.

"If a parent is coming home from work and only sits on a couch with a remote control watching television and eating dinner, then what do we expect our kids to do?"...

The prevalence of childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the United States and is a major public health issue. Consequently, it's affecting corporate health care costs and productivity.

"Yet, you just can't look at childhood obesity in terms of health care costs. Employers also have to examine it within the context of presenteeism," Curling asserts. It's common for parents to be preoccupied at work with thoughts of their children, even under normal circumstances.

"It's a much larger issue than just looking at what kind of dependent wellness program you have. It's about making sure that both your employee assistance program and your health care plan are focused on encouraging childhood health," she says.

Tips for employers

Some health plans provide 100% coverage for preventive care for children up to age 6, something that Curling believes is "short-sighted" in general.

Health insurance coverage for dependents should focus on preventive care for medical conditions that can surface during early and late adolescence, she adds.

Companies that have a successful track record with their wellness and health programs are probably in a better position to embark on a strategic approach to dependent wellness, says Brian Passon, wellness consultant and director at Corporate Fitness and Health, a company that focuses on wellness in the workplace. ...

"You can't demand your employees to change their lifestyles at home if you don't have a culture of good health at the workplace," Passon concludes.

Best practices to engage dependents in wellness programs

Michael Staufacker, director of program development for StayWell Health Management, offers advice for employers in bringing dependents into the wellness fold:

  • Offer an appropriate incentive. ... Tie incentives to desired behaviors, such as physical activity, rather than outcomes, like achieving a goal weight. ...
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. Don't forget that the average person receives a message seven times before they remember it. ...
  • Offer multiple program options. People learn in different ways. ... By offering multiple program modalities, you will appeal to a broader range of people. ...

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