Many who have tried it will tell you that initiating a wellness program is not the easiest sell to an employee population. Just ask Dianne Howard: “People don’t like being told what to do,” she says, and she saw quite a bit of resistance. That’s normal enough for a private company, but Howard’s position, as director of risk and benefits management for Florida’s Palm Beach County school district, comes with extra challenges.

“We’re a public entity, so noise gathers,” Howard says. “It doesn’t just come to me and my staff. It goes to me, to my boss and maybe to our school board. You just want to be able to defend your position, get it well-communicated and get the unions on board to help you communicate. We told them: If it works and we keep our rates down, maybe we won’t need rate increases every year. And for 2014 we’re not going to need a rate increase.”

Marked successes like that are one of the things that helped Howard win EBN’s 2013 Benny Award for Benefits Leadership in Health Care. The School District of Palm Beach County boasts an average five-year medical trend of 6%, 4% below the industry median of 10%. It also shed 1,000 dependents after an audit found them ineligible.

Howard, however, believes the wellness program has been helping keep costs down for the district, which has 20,000 full-time employees. It was a slow road, she says, and the program “evolved” from weak to strong.

“We started out by saying, ‘Here’s a health assessment you could do.’ In a district our size, we got 25 people to do it, and we gave gift cards at the time,” she says. “And that really was poor. So about four or five years ago we started talking with the unions and we found a different way to negotiate with them and said let’s bargain something two years out, and that gave them time to think and to plan.

“We wanted to get to the point where employees have to get blood work, so they know their condition, and get a physical. We put in data and found that more than half our employees never saw a doctor. So we said, ‘OK, preventive stuff is what we should do,’ so we had talks with our carrier about what’s important, and we figured the health assessment was very important.”

The school district upped the reward substantially to a $50 premium reduction per month. “And that number,” Howard says, “really was motivating to our employees.” In its first year, the new program saw 85% compliance. And now, as she says, health insurance costs won’t rise for workers next year. This, too, is a bigger deal for a public entity.

“We’re government employees,” Howard points out, “we haven’t had raises in a few years.”

Find more about Howard’s efforts – and all the Benny Winners – in EBN’s Sept. 15 issue.

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