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Wellness programs draw cost-cutters’ attention

John Seelmeyer

Some employers are quietly dropping wellness programs as they seek to control health-care costs during the recession.

Others increasingly want their insurance brokers to show a financial return on the dollars they invest in wellness programs an analysis that’s almost impossible at small companies.

And all of them are keeping a close eye on the costs of wellness programs that run the gamut from annual health fairs to structured non-smoking programs to reimbursement for membership in health clubs.

Wellness doesn’t come cheap.

The Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority, for instance, figures it will save $30,000 a year through its decision to temporarily suspend an employee wellness program that included health fairs, monthly wellness classes, reimbursement for Weight Watchers classes and smoking-cessation classes.

And the costs don’t end there, says Mitch Laughton, president of The Laughton Co., an employees benefits company in Reno.

A big hidden cost, especially for small employers without a dedicated human resources staff: Administration of wellness programs.

“They’re not easy to manage, and they need constant attention,” Laughton cautions his clients.

Proponents of wellness programs say they’re cost-efficient, helping to curb absenteeism today and lowering medical costs as employees age.

A much-publicized wellness program for employees of the Washoe County School District, for instance, returns $15.10 for every dollar that’s spent, found an analysis by the Wellness Councils of America.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, meanwhile, estimates wellness programs pay for themselves if they reduce risk factors by even 0.2 percent. That’s possible at a cost of $100 to $250 an employee per year, the study found.

But Laughton notes that some financially strapped employers wonder why they should pay for wellness programs today that will reduce health risks for their employers many years and several employers

down the road.

And other employers grouse privately that healthy employees are the ones most likely to take advantage of wellness programs, while smokers or obese workers fail to participate.

Lisa Dettling, director of health enhancement for Saint Mary’s Health Plans, says a growing number of employers want wellness programs that target specific concerns tobacco use, for instance, or diabetes.

And Dettling says employers increasingly link wellness incentives cash payments or other spiffs with results. If employees in the past received cash for participating in a wellness clinic, today the payment may not come until they’ve changed their habits.

“There’s more focus on taking charge,” Dettling says.

But with those changes, Dettling says Saint Mary’s continues to see interest in development of new wellness programs by employers.

“They understand that they have to keep their employees healthy,” she says.

About 46 percent of employers in the Reno-Sparks area offered wellness programs at the time of a 2007 survey undertaken by Truckee Meadows Tomorrow.

Even with the economic downturn, Laughton says some businesses are inaugurating wellness programs with a new goal in mind stress-reduction.

And employers who have trimmed wellness benefits sometimes find that the programs continue on their own.

At the airport, for example, 15 employees signed up for a Weight Watchers group even after their employer suspended the $100 reimbursement paid in the past.

The group, says airport spokeswoman Heidi Berthold, lost a combined total of 100 pounds in its first three weeks.