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Wellness Tips that Lowered Costs

By Stephen Miller, CEBS  10/11/2013
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NEW ORLEANS— In Fond du Lac County, Wis., health-risk assessments showed that county employees’ most prevalent risk factors were poor nutrition, cardiovascular disease and stress. Prior to starting the wellness program in 2003, the county’s health insurance premiums rose 11 percent to 17 percent annually over several years, and aggregate insurance data revealed that 70 percent of health claims were attributed to lifestyle issues and choices, said Erin Gerred, the county’s director of administration, at the 2013 EBN Benefits Forum and Expo.

In response, the county put in place a program that included consistent messaging about health improvement, health-risk assessments and biometric score cards; a “virtual clinic,” where questions are answered by a nurse practitioner; health fairs; and employee engagement surveys. In addition, the county offered the following incentives for participating in health-improvement activities:

  • No participation: Employee pays the full 18 percent share of the health premium.

  • Participation in health-risk assessment: Employee pays 15 percent of the premium.

  • Participation in risk assessment and reaching personal health score: Employee pays 12 percent of the premium.

As a result of these changes, “Currently, our 2014 renewal rate is just a 1 percent year-over-year increase,” Gerred noted. “And based on 2012 claims data, just 6 percent of our employees’ claims are attributed to unhealthy behavior.”

An Overall Strategy

Wellness programs should be promoted as part of an overall strategy that defines the audience, chooses the right message and means of delivery, and allows for personalization, Sandi Eskew, a senior wellness strategist at program provider Interactive Health, advised participants at the same session. She shared the following breakdown of factors that lead some wellness programs to succeed while others fail.


Wellness Programs: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Points that distinguish effective health-promotion initiatives from others:

The Good

The Bad

The Ugly

Strategy driven


Limited activities


Loosely pieced together


Measurable results


No measurable results


No one measures impact


Employees feel ownership.

Employees feel coerced.


Employees are unaware of the program.


Supported by management


Token management support



Well communicated


Sporadically visible



Part of workplace culture


Annual budget on life support



Source: Interactive Health.

Healthy ‘Swipes’

Another conference session highlighted innovative ways in which incentives can be used to drive wellness engagement. One example: Give participants a prepaid debit swipe card programmed to give a 10 percent discount on healthy food items at the point of sale, suggested Beth Griffin, global business leader for health care and insurance at Mastercard Worldwide. The cards can be set up to provide discounts on nutritious fare like fresh fruits and vegetables.

To keep things interesting, discounts are applied to varying items as the seasons change. E-mail and fliers inform employees of what foods are set to receive discounts along with other wellness program information, thereby increasing engagement with these initiatives.

The cards also can be used to provide discounts on diabetes-testing products or over-the-counter medications.

As for overall strategy, “Make incentives achievable, focus on continuous improvement, and make premium reduction a foundational component,” Griffin advised.

“Employees don’t want to spend a lot of time trying to understand how incentive programs work,” she added. “Keep it simple.”

Stephen Miller, CEBS, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Related Articles:

Groups Offer Guidance for Biometric Screenings, SHRM Online Benefits, October 2013

Health Culture Improves Employee Performance, SHRM Online Benefits, October 2013

From a Candy Culture to Health-Obsessed: A Wellness Convert's Tale, SHRM Online Benefits, March 2013

Wellness Program 'Best Practices' Foster Success, SHRM Online Benefits, February 2013

Launching a 'Winning' Wellness Contest, SHRM Online Benefits, December 2012

Using Behavioral-Based Design to Encourage Healthy Behavior, SHRM Online Benefits, August 2011 

Quick Links:

SHRM Online Benefits page

SHRM Online Wellness Programs Resource Page


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