Taking health care seriously is nothing new to Mercy Medical Center-Cedar Rapids. But thanks to its successful wellness program for employees, Mercy has taken that commitment to a whole new level.

With increasing health care costs nationwide, Mercy's leadership decided in 2006 to establish the wellness program to lower the cost of providing health care to employees and get employees motivated to become healthier. Seven years later, the benefits of this multifaceted program are clear. The increase in Mercy's health care costs are lower than national projections. Moreover, Mercy has created a culture of wellness - an ongoing commitment to encourage and support employees as they develop healthier lifestyles.

Since its inception, Mercy has fine-tuned its wellness program with incremental changes each year.

Preventive services are reviewed to find the most cost-effective care options. Mercy also promotes health through its policies, such as a smoke-free environment and free wellness programming, which include educational seminars on health issues, a smoking cessation program and health/wellness coaching.

Employees work toward earning 1,000 points over a year. They complete a health risk assessment to identify health risk factors (smoking, alcohol use, stress levels) and then a biometric screening to measure blood pressure, cholesterol, glucose, waist-to-hip ratio and body fat percentage. Next, each employee completes at least three of seven preventive services - annual checkup, mammogram, colonoscopy, flu shot, dental checkup, eye exam and preventive dermatology.

Employees can gain more points by pledging to be smoke-free and participating in wellness activities such as road races of 5K or more and fitness center visits. Health and wellness coaches help employees tackle weight issues and stress, or manage a chronic disease condition. All services are provided at no cost to the employee. Mercy also opened an onsite outpatient employee pharmacy in 2009 and an employee health center in 2011 that serves Mercy employees and their families.

This year, employees who successfully complete the wellness challenge and carry Mercy medical insurance receive a 30% discount on premiums. Annual savings range from $216 to $1,159, based on their full-time employee status and level of coverage.

Mercy's financial health has also benefited through cost savings on the hospital's per employee per month costs. Some of the factors contributing to that improvement on the bottom line may include fewer emergency room visits, improved employee productivity and retention rates, and employees using fewer sick days.

Word of Mercy's success has spread. The organization is now working with about 40 employers to develop their own health and wellness programs.

Molly McWilliam and Kate Klefstad, Mercy's certified wellness coaches, are in high demand, both at Mercy and as consultants to other companies.

"We tailor a program that fits the company," Klefstad says. "We survey their employees to find out what they need or want, and provide monthly workshops. Each company can manage its own program or hire Mercy to oversee it."

McWilliam and Klefstad stress the importance of making participation voluntary and the program easily accessible.

"People don't want to be told what to do," Klefstad explains. "We want to establish that culture of wellness so employees see participation as a benefit."

It's working. In 2006, 32% of Mercy's employees participated. Last year, 69% joined. Mercy now offers year-round events addressing nutrition, fitness and weight management. One popular event, Team Up 2 Trim Down, helps participants manage weight. In 2012, 603 employees participated. Of those, 65% lost weight and 54% reported improved eating habits. This year, 620 signed up.

For Lisa Zwanziger, employment coordinator with Mercy's HR department, the wellness program changed her life. Hired five years ago, the first incentive that got her attention was the discount cost of health premiums. After her health assessment, she was even more curious.

"This really opened my eyes to being healthy," Zwanziger explains. "All it takes is to say: 'OK, I need to take better care of myself.' This isn't just about your physical wellness. It's mental, spiritual, financial wellness too. It's the big picture."

Today, at 45, Zwanziger has lost 20 pounds and incorporates healthy habits throughout her daily routine. When she feels stressed or needs a break at work, she goes to the Women's Center for a 15-minute massage or practices some yoga. She walks three or four times a week and eats smaller portions.

"I've learned I need to eat less but more often. I definitely feel more energized," she explains. "That awareness can really change the way you look at yourself."

Doug Jontz is vice president, human resources at Mercy Medical Center, Cedar Rapids. Brooke Kensinger is director, business health solutions at Mercy Medical Center, Cedar Rapids.

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