In 2009, the Civil Service Employees Association Employee Benefit Fund was at a crossroads. The benefit fund, which provides dental and vision benefits for more than 300,000 public employee union members and their dependents in New York State, was facing a double-digit spike in its health insurance costs and seemed resigned to renewing a policy with an insurer that was not meeting the needs of the fund's 60 employees.

The fund's new director was intent on reducing health care costs, while at the same time exploring strategies to help the fund's employees improve their overall health. EBF's leadership set about identifying a new vendor to offer innovative workplace wellness programs while still offering a competitively priced insurance product. After working with the fund's insurance broker on reviewing vendor proposals, EBF contracted in 2010 with the Capital District Physicians Health Plan.

At the same time, EBF initiated its own workplace wellness program. In phase one of the program, EBF conducted a health fair and screening in cooperation with St. Peters Hospital and CDPHP, and sponsored a 14-week Weight Watchers program. Midway through the weight program, EBF added a walking program that allowed employees 2.5 hours per week to run, walk or work out at a local gym. The fund already had a program in place that reimbursed employees up to $300 annually for gym membership or exercise equipment.

The 20 participating Weight Watchers participants lost a total of 390 pounds, so EBF renewed the program for an additional 17 weeks. The second session achieved similar success, with 20 participants losing a combined 302 pounds. Wanting to keep the progress going, the fund added a third and fourth round. Altogether, employees in all four sessions lost more than 1,100 pounds.

In March, EBF scheduled a second health fair to compare employees' health results with the benchmarks established in 2010. In just one year, 16 EBF employees reduced their body mass index, and 12 reduced their BMI by more than one point. In addition, 18 employees reduced their cholesterol levels, and only four employees experienced a cholesterol increase. EBF staff also made significant improvements in triglyceride levels and blood pressure - further evidence of the program's success.

"EBF's success is the result of support from its executive staff and the buy-in and hard work of the employees," says Jane Balander, EBF's wellness coordinator. "In my view, a wellness program will not work if the employer doesn't extend support both in time and reward. Many employers criticize wellness programs for mediocre results that do not translate into savings. My observation is that if the employer makes a real investment in both time and money, the positive results will flow. In just two years, our program offers proof of those rewards."

Although the health screening provided an independent source for tracking success, the CDPHP program also included a Lifepoints tool that rewarded employees with gift cards when they completed an online health assessment. Over the course of one year, 66 workers completed the assessment. Since Lifepoints began, CDPHP has provided gift cards valued at nearly $6000 to EBF staff and dependents.

Documenting the return on investment for workplace wellness programs can be difficult, but since starting the program, EBF has experienced many tangible benefits.

In addition to weight loss and reduced health risks, the implementation of a new Shared Health program created by CDPHP resulted in defined cost savings that will likely approach $20,000 in just two years. The Shared Health program builds upon a partnership between the carrier and its policyholders to reduce and control costs through intensive mentoring and account contacts to track health issues, promote workplace wellness and educate the employees of its policyholders. As a result, EBF's premium renewal for 2012 was maintained at 2011 rates.

In addition, employee absenteeism is down, and employees have spoken positively about the program's value. Since EBF primarily is a claims-processing and customer-service call center operation, employees say that being able to feel better about themselves and take a break from duties to run, walk or go to the gym has made them more productive. Interestingly, an analysis of those employees who have most actively participated in the wellness program and assigned work quotas demonstrates a correlation between those who have participated in wellness and those who regularly meet or exceed work quotas.

EBF employees also are taking their wellness results to the streets. In 2010, the fund sponsored a team for a CDPHP/American Heart Association walk and raised about $300. In 2011, 20 employees participated in a Workforce Team Challenge 3.5 mile run and walk, and other staff plan to participate in other 5K runs and walks. To demonstrate its support of employees going the extra mile in pursuit of fitness, EBF reimburses workers up to $200 annually for registration costs for each race/walk they complete.


Forward momentum

EBF is looking forward to tracking the continued success of the wellness program in future quarters and evolving the wellness program to keep it fresh and innovative. A new program, "Log Your Cardio," was launched in October, allowing participants to log cardio workout hours for a requirement of four hours per week, 16 hours a month, for six months. At the end of each month, participants who meet the minimum hours will be entered into a drawing for a $100 gift card, a $50 gift card and an iPod.

Further, EBF has contracted with CDPHP for a nutritionist to lead lunch-and-learn programs and create targeted programming to address stress in the workplace, diabetes, blood pressure concerns and healthy eating habits.

William F. Howard is the director of the CSEA Employee Benefit Fund in Latham, N.Y. This article concludes EBN's year-long BeneIFT Success Series. Thank you to all companies and employees who participated.

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