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Wellness programs save money; Medical costs for companies show a decline.

Byline: Susan Spencer

Catherine Andrade, a MassHealth nurse case manager at Fallon Community Health Plan in Worcester, knew the importance of living a healthy lifestyle. She just had a hard time putting the nutrition and exercise pieces together in her own busy life, until she took part last year in a "Taking Steps to Good Health" employee wellness challenge at work.

Ms. Andrade not only improved her own shape and risk-factor profile, losing close to 20 pounds and lowering her cholesterol and triglycerides, she most likely contributed to a better bottom line for her employer, too.

A recent national survey by the Principal Financial Group, based in Des Moines, Iowa, found that employers who invested in wellness programs showed medical costs improve by an average of $3.27 for every dollar spent on wellness; absenteeism costs improved by an average of $2.73.

"I feel more energetic," Ms. Andrade said after completing the program.

She also said that when she caught a cold this winter, it only lasted for three days.

"I could only attribute that to my exercise program," she said.

Fallon has a fitness room for its employees at Chestnut Place, which features treadmills, elliptical machines, stationary bicycles and weights. The health plan offers exercise classes on-site and has partnered with Worcester Fitness to provide coaching and additional workout facilities, according to Linda St. John, the plan's vice president of human resources.

Ms. St. John said, "If you take care of people, then your return on investment is really going to take care of itself."

Besides working to keep its own employees healthy, Fallon offers wellness programs to its employer groups.

Karen A. Gagliastre, manager of health promotion, said the health plan offers a range of smoking cessation programs, screenings and workshops on hypertension, skin cancer, body mass index and stress management, among other topics.

"It's really a way to raise awareness, to improve their employees' health," Ms. Gagliastre said.

Interest in wellness programs from employer groups is growing as businesses seek to rein in health care costs. She said, "They want to see other ways of keeping employees healthy."

Unum, a Chatanooga, Tenn.-based insurance carrier with an office in Worcester, also offers an on-site fitness center and health resource center staffed by a nurse to its 600 local employees. About 180 employees are enrolled in the program, which costs $4 per biweekly pay period.

"There's definitely a correlation with lower medical (cost) trends," said Michael Booth, manager of health promotion and wellness programs at Unum.

Besides helping employees manage chronic conditions with support from the health resource center, Mr. Booth said the fitness room combats the sedentary lifestyle that's a part of corporate work.

"There's no question that people who are physically active are going to have lower risk factors," he said.

Patrick McIntyre, business director for the Department of Occupational Medicine at Reliant Medical Group in Worcester, said managing risk factors and keeping employees healthy is becoming even more important now that a growing number of workers are age 55 and older.

"The impact of a `chronologically gifted' workforce shouldn't be underestimated," Mr. McIntyre said. "Those folks bring a certain level of health and lifestyle challenges to employers. You have to handle it differently than an under-35 workforce."

Reliant offers medical screenings, nutrition education, flu clinics and other preventive services to employers.

Mr. McIntyre said that Reliant's occupational medicine perspective helps in understanding how employers can better manage their costs as well as the health and safety of their workforce.

And, while in the down economy employers were reluctant to spend money on prevention programs, interest is coming back.

"Ultimately, a healthy, productive workforce has lower costs," Mr. McIntyre said.


CUTLINE: Catherine Andrade, a nurse case manager at Fallon Community Health Plan in Worcester, works out on an elliptical machine in the company's fitness room.

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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Mar 4, 2012
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