Big bucks are at stake in a new wellness program for employers.

A company called HealthyWage organizes competitions, called match-ups, in various locations across the country, with employers vying against each other. The winning employer receives $25,000.

Individual participants work in teams of five. The top team wins $10,000, while $5,000 goes to the second-place team and $3,000 goes to the third-place team.

The teams with the greatest percentage of weight loss over the three-month contest period win. Weigh-ins must be verified with forms signed by doctors or gym officials.

David Roddenberry, co-founder of HealthyWage, says, "People typically lose 5.5% of their body weight, with the winners losing 18%. It's effective." The company, which launched last October, makes money through advertising and corporate sponsorships.

A competition adds an element of fun and excitement to the hard work of weight loss. "Wellness has to be fun in order to maintain change," Roddenberry says. "People don't respond to being told to lose weight. They have to want to do it for themselves. We need fresh solutions."

A match-up in Michigan started on Jan. 7 and will end this month. Organizers are planning match-ups to begin in Wisconsin, North Carolina and Florida this spring.

HealthyWage limited the Michigan match-up to 500 teams, or 2,500 people. Nineteen employers signed up to participate.

Participants listen to weekly conference calls with personal trainers, fitness experts and former contestants from the popular television show "The Biggest Loser." Fitness expert Joe Stankowski, author of "This Workout Doesn't Suck," is leading the calls.

Team members use a social networking platform on the HealthyWage website to communicate with one another.

Employers pay $2 per employee for the match-up. Each employee pays $50. Other local residents whose employer is not supporting them pay $60.


Eye on health costs

Obesity is a growing problem that continues to vex U.S. employers, who have faced large increases in health care premiums in recent years. About 34% of American adults are obese (with a body-mass index of 30 or higher), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Weight is a huge problem. Employers are starting to realize that, so they're making a commitment of time and money," Roddenberry says. "[A competition] will keep your employees healthier and keep them engaged, thinking about their health."

Grand Traverse Resort and Casinos, run by the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, joined the Michigan match-up.

Two of the company's sites - Turtle Creek Casino in Williamsburg, Mich., and Leelanau Sands Casino in Peshawbestown, Mich. - are competing against each other. The company has 900 employees, and at least 50 signed up to participate.

Alisha Wormell, human resource manager for Grand Traverse Resort and Casinos, says, "We're excited to move in this direction and do something positive as a company. It's been good. It's been a lot of fun."

She knows that healthy workers are good for the employer's bottom line. "We're always looking for ways to cut down on health care costs. We're hoping the employees will take advantage of it and start living healthier lifestyles right now. We're hoping to see health care costs go down," she notes.

Caidan Management Co., which administers the Health Plan of Michigan, also joined the Michigan match-up. At press time, 10 of its 247 workers had enrolled.

Lisa Hing, a human resource manager at Caidan Management Co., says, "The biggest thing that was catchy to us was that it was local. It really encourages you to engage your employees to build a culture of wellness locally. We like the idea of doing friendly competitions with other local businesses."

As a health care company, "we really want to give our employees the resources to practice what we preach," Hing comments. "We want to promote an active and healthy society. The healthier your staff, the better their insurance [rate] is going to be."


Financial incentives

In addition to the statewide match-ups, HealthyWage offers an incentive program called the BMI Challenge, which is free to participants and employers.

Individuals receive $100 if their body-mass index is at least 30 at the start date and less than 25 one year later. That means the weight must come off and stay off, at least until the full year is over. The incentive money comes from corporate sponsors.

In addition, participants can wager their own money on this challenge. Workers who invest $300 will be rewarded with $1,000 if they meet their BMI goal. For a $150 investment, the reward will be $400. Participants who don't reach a BMI of less than 25 lose the money they bet.

After registering for the BMI Challenge, participants complete a health risk assessment and regularly log on to the site to enter data about their food intake, physical activity and prescription drug compliance. They can track their progress and identify areas that need improvement.

HealthyWage sells the data in anonymous, aggregate form to drug manufacturers, food manufacturers, retailers, health care providers and diet companies.

An increasing number of employers are using financial incentives in their wellness programs. "Consumers seem to really like the accountability that a monetary incentive can provide. It's been going really well so far," Roddenberry says.

Leah Shepherd is a former managing editor of Employee Benefit News, and co-author of "The Three Rs of Employee Benefits: Recruiting, Retention and Rewards."

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