Wellness, employee assistance programs in action

March 1, 2004 By    

“We have a health crisis in this country,” matter-of-factly states Sheila Hayter, director of employee services for Ferrellgas Partners.

Ferrellgas has a jump on a lot of other employers in addressing the crisis, though, since it launched its wellness program almost 10 years ago.

Through the company’s insurance provider, Ferrellgas employees have access to a comprehensive wellness website where they can take a health risk assessment. After they enter all of their personal data, employees find out what their risks are and also get information on what lifestyle changes they should make.

“The site also provides a broad range of health tips,” Hayter adds.

Once employees commit to making certain changes, the company may help in the process. For example, Ferrellgas rewards employees for not smoking by giving them credit toward their medical plans.

To encourage greater participation in healthy activites, the company has launched what it calls a “fun competition” called “Race Across America.” The “race” starts in Washington state. For every 30 minutes of exercise an employee completes, they “travel” 239 miles across the country. The race zigzags across the country from Washington to Florida.

Employees log their time on the Intranet. If they exercise three times a week, they can reach Florida by March, which is the end of the contest. “If they do so, they receive a T-shirt and are eligible for a drawing,” reports Hayter.

While it has been difficult to measure the actual cost savings associated with the wellness program, Ferrellgas has been able to stay a couple of percentage points below the national trend for health care cost increases, part of which can be attributed to the wellness program.

“Another benefit, and one that we can’t quantify, is employee morale,” she adds. “Employees appreciate the fact that we care about their health.”

AmeriGas Partners also offers a wellness program through its medical plan. It includes routine physicals, preventive screenings, eye exams, smoking cessation programs, reimbursements for health and fitness club memberships, and reimbursements for certain approved weight-loss programs.

“The physicals and screenings have good participation,” reports Carol Guinan, director of benefits. “However, in order to increase usage of the health club membership program and the reimbursement programs, we plan more education next year on the benefits of participation.”

AmeriGas has also had an employee assistance program in place since 1996. It offers professional assistance with drug/alcohol dependency, child care and elder care and personal finances. Another feature is a 24/7 nurse line program, where employees can talk to RNs about any kind of medical issue or condition to get information and advice.

Company officials say one benefit of the EAP is improved productivity. When employees can get information and help quickly and easily, they focus on their jobs instead of worrying about concers such as getting good care for their children or parents.

The nurse line benefits are more easily quantified. If a parent calls in the middle of the night to report that his or her child has a high fever, the nurse gathers information and suggests an appropriate course of action – going to the emergency room or waiting to take the child to the doctor the next morning. Then, the nurse asks what the parent would have done if he or she had not called the nurse line.

If the parent says he or she would have taken the child to the emergency room (a $500 cost), but the nurse recommended a next-day doctor visit ($50), there is a savings of $450. If the parent says he or she would have done nothing, but the nurse recommends a visit to the emergency room, the cost of the emergency room is weighed against the possibility of the child ending up with more serious and costly medical problems.

CHS Inc. of Inver Grove Heights, Minn., formerly Cenex, offers a full line of benefits, including health insurance that includes a wellness program component.

“Employers and the gas industry in general are encouraging employees to be more healthy through exercise and diet programs,” explains Mike Phelps, CHS spokesperson.

The company offers an Employees’ Club, which includes exercise programs, diet education, flu shots and smoking cessation classes. “We also have a brown bag lunch program where experts talk about illnesses, exercise, etc.,” he states.

CHS also offers a full-service EAP that helps employees with problems such as financial concerns and family issues.

“We haven’t formally measured results in terms of reduced health care costs or reduced absenteeism, but attendance and participation in the programs are strong, which tells us employees are using them,” he concludes.

Can’t afford a formal wellness program in your company? There is an alternative.

If you offer health insurance, ask your insurance provider for information on its website, which almost certainly offers health tips to which you can direct your employees.

If you don’t offer health insurance, check with your local hospital or large clinic and ask if it has any health brochures you can hand out, or if it can direct you to any public health information websites accessible by your employees.

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