In an effort to cut health care costs and improve quality of life, companies are turning to wellness programs

Joshua Burd//May 5, 2014//

In an effort to cut health care costs and improve quality of life, companies are turning to wellness programs

Joshua Burd//May 5, 2014//

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If there’s a weekend charity race somewhere in New Jersey, you just might find someone from Wakefern Food Corp.’s “run/walk club” participating in the event.

It’s a good bet for a group that has grown to more than 300 members since it was formed five years ago. But it’s also just one piece of the Edison-based company’s wellness program for more than 1,600 employees, along with exercise classes, fitness reimbursements and lunchtime seminars on topics such as diabetes and portion control.

“We’re always thinking of new ways to reach more people,” said Krystina DeLuca, a retail technical training specialist, who leads Wakefern’s “Live Right” committee. “There’s been a lot more that we have done that has been successful (and) hasn’t been successful, but we’re constantly trying to get as many people involved in some capacity as possible.”

The company — the merchandising and distribution arm of ShopRite and other supermarkets — is certainly not alone. Benefits experts say health and wellness programs will become increasingly popular in years to come, as a way to both improve corporate culture and achieve savings in the era of health care reform.

Exactly what that entails depends on a company’s goals and resources. Under the Affordable Care Act, employers can offer a discount of up to 30 percent to workers who get screened for things such as cholesterol, blood pressure and glucose levels, and then work to address them. That reward can go up to 50 percent for programs designed to prevent or reduce tobacco use.

But John Sarno, president of the Employers Association of New Jersey, said smaller and midsized companies have stayed away from those types of wellness programs because of the privacy, regulatory and other requirements that come with them. Those compliance considerations are “too much for a small employer to figure out and to deal with.”

Rather, the programs are “done almost exclusively by very large corporations” who have the paid staff and sophistication to administer them, Sarno said. That’s not to mention a critical mass of employees with chronic diseases, giving them to a chance to yield long-term savings and leverage with an insurance carrier if they can manage health risks.

That means many smaller firms have opted for “full participatory programs,” with features such as gym discounts, walking events and seminars, he said. And they believe they’re benefiting as a result.

“They’re very enthusiastic,” Sarno said. “And they are believers in the program — even though they can’t easily measure any outcomes — because they think that the morale and the engagement of the employee is a sufficient motivator to do it.”

Going forward, it’s a concept that “I think people really need to get their arms around, because everybody uses a very different definition of wellness,” said Joseph Torella of HUB International, a benefits brokerage and consulting firm. “And you could throw 50 different things against the wall and say, ‘That’s a wellness program.’”

But Torella, who oversees HUB’s national benefits practice, said the right wellness program involves a long-term commitment and an effort to understand your employees’ risks levels. That’s done through screenings and collection of vital health data — allowing a firm to see trends for conditions such as heart disease or diabetes.

“If we’re doing the right wellness program, we get people very aware of what their health risks are and we encourage them to manage them with a physician in an effective manner,” Torella said. “We never gave the patient the information they needed to make good decisions about their health before. So going forward, a good wellness program in our mind certainly is going to help educate people.”

At Solix Inc., a Parsippany-based outsourcing services firm, employees are being rewarded for completing online health risk assessments through its health insurance carrier. Amber Wilson, an associate benefits manager, said the reward this year was a $75 gift card, and the percentage of employee participation has been at least in the high 80s.

“(It) gives us a nice snapshot of where we stand, so we know where to target our initiatives throughout the year,” Wilson said, noting that Solix gets aggregated numbers, not individual data, to see trends in areas such as hypertension, stress or weight issues.

It’s all part of an effort that Wilson said is a work in progress as the firm tries to drum up participation. Walking and fitness challenges have been the most successful, such as in 2012 when teams of five competed to walk enough steps to, theoretically, get from Solix’s Parsippany office to a satellite office in Charleston, Ill.

“We’re always working on improving,” Wilson said. “I don’t think any company will ever have the perfect program. You just have to be flexible enough to change directions and really try to find the things that will fit within your company’s culture — the things that will get better levels of engagement.”

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At a glance: Wakefern’s health and wellness program
Run/walk club:
A group of more than 300 employees whose members participate almost every weekend in 5K runs, half-marathons and other races around New Jersey. Roughly between 30 and 60 employees participate in a given weekend.

Exercise classes at work Monday-Thursday: These include yoga, jazzercise, Zumba and kickboxing and typically last 14 weeks. Employees must put down $25 and either attend or find a substitute for 10 out of the 14 weeks, allowing them to get back a $25 ShopRite gift card. This spring, the company has offered 13 classes and drawn 144 participants.

Fitness reimbursement: Associates who have gym memberships or participate in a Weight Watchers program can receive a 40 percent reimbursement every September, up to $300.

“Lunch and learn” seminars: The free events are held every month or two months, tying in health topics such as diabetes or portion control. The company also brings in a corporate dietician and corporate chef.

Corporate participation: Programs such as Weight Watchers and Biggest Loser are big hits.

Screenings and testing: For diabetes, cholesterol, skin conditions and other areas.


Wellness trends in large companies
Corporate employers in 2013 planned to spend an average of $521 per employee on wellness-based incentives within health care programs, an increase of 13 percent from the average of $460 reported for 2011 and double the average of $260 reported in 2009.

Those were the findings of a survey conducted by Fidelity Investments and the National Business Group on Health, the latest in series of studies going back to 2009 that aim to analyze the growth of workplace wellness programs.

The survey also found that the overall use of wellness-based incentives among corporate employers continues to increase. The study found that 86 percent of employers surveyed indicated they currently offer wellness-based incentives, an increase from 73 percent from 2011 and 57 percent from 2009.

Such programs typically consist of condition-management services such as managing insulin treatments; lifestyle-management services such as weight loss advice; health-risk management services such as on-site flu shots; and environmental enhancements such as bike racks and walking paths.

Other findings:

  • Some 15 percent of employers surveyed are requiring employees to complete some sort of health activity — such as an employer-sponsored biometric screening or health risk assessment — in order to determine their eligibility for one or all of the company’s health plans in 2014.
  • The most popular wellness-based incentives aimed at upping participation remains a decrease in premiums, cash or gift cards or an employer-sponsored contribution to a health savings account or similar heath care-based savings vehicle.

Data for the survey was collected online in October and November of 2012 and is based on responses from a national sample of 120 companies from several industries, including transportation, health care, technology, entertainment, consumer products, retail and energy. The company sizes span from less than 2,000 to more than 50,000 employees.