Shannon Mortland for Crain’s Cleveland
Many companies have shied away from wellness programs that aim to prompt employees to live healthier lifestyles, but that could be about to change.
In July, Congress began considering the Healthy Workforce Act of 2007, which would provide tax breaks to companies that offer robust wellness programs to employees. Through the act, the government hopes to reduce health care spending and therefore free up more money to flow into the economy. And some believe the effort just might work.
Dr. Ron Golovan, medical director of Beachwood-based wellness pro-vider Be Well Solutions, said many small and mid-size companies are starting to think about wellness, a concept that mostly has been reserved for large corporations that stand to save a lot of money.
Though a tax incentive isn’t the best reason to start a wellness program, it is one more reason to consider it, he said.
“My hunch is that (the Healthy Workforce Act) will take people sitting on the fence and move them to the wellness side and hedge people closer to the fence who haven’t heard of it,” said Dr. Golovan, who also is a private practice internal medicine physician and head team internist for the Cleveland Indians.
Many companies that already have wellness programs in place have reported a boost in employee morale and productivity, said Michael O’Donnell, the director of health and wellness at the Cleveland Clinic who also helped write the Healthy Workforce Act. However, those who don’t participate in such programs don’t understand how morale and productivity can be tied to wellness, he said.
Therefore, a tax break might be the push small and mid-size companies need to start a wellness program, said Paula Sauer, vice president of care management at insurer Medical Mutual of Ohio Inc.
“If your employees stay with you and there’s not a high turnover, how can it not be worth it?” she said.
Under the act, for-profit companies would be given a 50% tax credit of up to $200 per employee for the amount of money they spend on a wellness program. Tax-exempt employers would receive a 50% subsidy on the cost of a wellness program.
Vicky Hawke, executive director of the Northern Ohio Area Chambers of Commerce, said the Healthy Workforce Act could be a boon for everyone involved.
“I hate it when the government gets involved, but something that forces people to address this may be the incentive to get (companies) to do this,” she said.
There’s plenty of evidence that shows that wellness programs — whether they aim to keep healthy people healthy, manage chronic diseases or change the lifestyles of those at risk for health problems — can work.
Studies show a savings on medical costs of $3.93 for every dollar spent on wellness, said Dr. O’Donnell, who also is the editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Health Promotion and the chairman of Health Promotion Advocates, a nonprofit organization in Annapolis, Md., that aims to integrate health promotion concepts into public policy.
Medical Mutual reduced the health risk of its employees by 5 to 6 percentage points from 2003 to 2005, Ms. Sauer said. Results for 2006 are not yet available, she said.
Cuyahoga Community College has had measurable success with its wellness programs, which were launched in 2000. Each year, the college offers health risk assessments for employees and creates health programs based on the results of those assessments, said Elovia Peddle, director of health and wellness at Tri-C.
In the year that ended in August 2006, 42% of Tri-C’s 1,200 full-time employees completed the wellness program, and many others participated in some portion of it, she said.
Those who participated in some aspect of Tri-C’s wellness program saw their health care costs rise only 10.7% annually from 2000 to 2005, while those who did not participate saw increases of 18.8% in each of those years, she said. Tri-C works with the University of Michigan Health Management Research Center to determine outcomes.
A dose of skepticism
Still, some aren’t convinced the Healthy Workforce Act will make much of an impact.
Nancy Pokorny, vice president of member products for the Council of Smaller Enterprises, said small companies already are struggling with high insurance premiums for their employees, so she doesn’t think they’ll be able to put a natural remedies for herpes lot of money into a wellness program.
Over the next year, COSE will encourage members to use the wellness programs that insurers such as Medical Mutual and Anthem Blue Cross & Blue Shield already have available at no extra cost, she said. For example, Medical visite website Mutual offers free Weight Watchers and smoking cessation programs for its members.
Though the Healthy Workforce Act would clear up misconceptions employers have about not being permitted by law to talk to employees about their lifestyle choices, employees still aren’t buying into the wellness concept because they don’t want to think about being sick, said Stephen Musgrave, president of the Wellness Council of Northeast Ohio in Painesville.
“People don’t value their health until it’s done, then they’ll pay anything to have it fixed,” he said. “Nobody wants to be mortal.”
Dr. O’Donnell said the Healthy Workforce Act should pass into law because it has both Democratic and Republican support. Though the act suggests tax breaks at a time when the country is in a “medical care cost crisis,” he said Congress understands that more money could be put into employees’ hands while also improving their health.
“People in Congress get this idea,” he said.