Health care costs spur push for wellness programs

Do wellness programs work? 1 call center firm says its costs, employees' health are improving

Associated Press
Health care costs spur push for wellness programs
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This undated photo provided by TeleTech shows Michelle Ebert, director …

DENVER (AP) -- Michelle Ebert played basketball, volleyball, tennis and softball in high school. But she gained weight after college while building her career with a firm that helps other companies manage customer service, often working 14-hour days.

Ebert lost weight twice with a diet program only to regain the pounds later. A new wellness program promoted by her employer prompted her to try again. Two years later, Ebert, 40, has lost 80 pounds, and she no longer needs to take two pills she once took for high blood pressure.

Ebert, director of a Morgantown, W.V., center for Colorado-based TeleTech Holdings Inc., credits a companywide emphasis on wellness for helping her stick to her fitness program. Co-workers also started living healthier and asking her how she lost the weight.

"The more people you have to pat you on the back and they've noticed a difference, the more motivated you are," she said.

Companies are increasingly looking at wellness programs to cut rising health care costs, said Lisa Walvoord, vice president of policy for LiveWell Colorado. Some programs ban smoking at the workplace or provide financial incentives to go to the gym. Various studies have shown the programs can improve employees' fitness and lower costs, Walvoord said.

"The downside is in most programs, a small percentage of employees take advantage of them," said University of Colorado School of Medicine professor James Hill, who co-founded the America on the Move initiative aimed at preventing unhealthy weight gains.

"Oftentimes the people who take advantage are the people who are doing the right thing anyway. It's an area we're interested in working on: how to get more employees interested," Hill said.

Employer-offered wellness programs tend to work better when top managers are involved and the company culture encourages participation, Hill said.

TeleTech founder Kenneth Tuchman values health and wellness, and the company is rolling out its wellness program around the world, said Rachel Kanack, Teletech's vice president of benefits and compensation. In the Philippines, as in the U.S., the program's activities include a popular weight-loss competition. Other activities focus on mental and financial well-being.

Teletech says that among employees who had biometric screenings in 2010, about 75 percent were obese and 34 percent were pre-diabetic. Among program participants last year, 68 percent were obese, and 18 percent were pre-diabetic, the company said.

TeleTech's health care costs have been flat due to several factors, including fewer emergency room visits, fewer health claims and changes in the design of health plans, Kanack said.

"The goal year over year is to make the program self-funding," she said.

LiveWell Colorado's goal is to make the healthy choice the easy choice at workplaces, where employees spend significant chunks of time. In its own office, hand weights lie around for people to lift during meetings. The snack room holds fruit, not candy.

Some companies have added walking trails or even slowed down elevators to make it quicker to take the stairs, Walvoord said.

At TeleTech, where many employees spend hours sitting, Ebert has been able to get discounts on her medical insurance premiums and earn monetary incentives for working with a wellness coach. She also joined a gym on her own. Ebert guesses she has saved around $400 annually through the wellness program.

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Catherine Tsai is on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ctsai_denver

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