With sweat pouring off him, Sgt. Larry Guthrie stepped quickly on an elliptical trainer Thursday afternoon in the city’s Health and Wellness fitness center.
The Chattanooga police officer works out there Monday through Friday, sometimes doing 30 minutes on the elliptical trainer, sometimes 30 minutes in an aerobic class.
“It’s so convenient that you can workout on a regular basis; it can’t help but do good,” he said.
Local employers, from city governments to private companies, are trying to improve their workers’ productivity and morale while cutting health care costs by helping those employees get or stay fit. Many employers are shelling out thousands to set up wellness programs intended to avert emergency room visits and cut down on worker absenteeism.
The catch-all term “wellness” can refer to prevention tactics, such as flu shots or screenings exams, “get fit” efforts that encourage employees to exercise or quit smoking, and disease management programs that offer coaches and nurses who can help an employee manage chronic conditions, said Jerry Burgess, president and CEO of Knoxville-based Health Care 21 Business Coalition. The nonprofit member organization is comprised of employer groups and focuses on improving the quality and cost of health care.
Prevention efforts such as flu shots, and disease management, for people with diseases ranging from asthma to diabetes to depression, tend to pay off quicker than gym memberships, in terms of fewer hospital admissions and emergency room visits and more productivity, Mr. Burgess said.
BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee is one of the latest local employers to roll out a wellness-centered plan for employees. Those efforts include amenities planned for the insurer’s new corporate headquarters at Cameron Hill, including an on-site health clinic and fitness center, said Dr. Mark Selna, senior vice president of personal health advocacy at BlueCross.
As part of the program, participants will have access to online health coaching and eventually a social networking site to help connect employees interested in health.
City reigning in health care
The city of Chattanooga started a comprehensive health and wellness program almost two years ago, first opening a health clinic on Amnicola Highway and then opening a health clinic and fitness center on 10th Street near City Hall.
The city also changed health care providers and adopted a city-managed health care plan, said City Personnel Administrator Donna Kelley.
Since opening the two clinics, more than 45,000 visitors have gone through the doors, she said. The clinics are staffed with doctors, nurses and health care professionals. A city pharmacy opened Tuesday that will offer prescriptions at wholesale prices, she said.
Ms. Kelley said the city is constantly trying to push programs in disease management, weight control and smoking cessation in attempts to rein in rising health care costs. The city partners with CareHere, a Franklin, Tenn., business, that provides the health services, Ms. Kelley said. The city does not have access to any personal medical information, but the doctors are trained to encourage healthy lifestyles, she said.
The idea is for city employees to take charge of their health while also encouraging them to go to the doctor regularly for early detection of any diseases, she said.
“If they (employees) don’t take charge of their well being, the underwriters will take charge,” she said.
The city has seen savings, so far. In the first quarter of the 2008-2009 fiscal year, the city budgeted $4.8 million for health care costs. It actually spent about $3.8 million, she said.
Ms. Kelley pointed to Mayor Ron Littlefield and Chattanooga Police Chief Freeman Cooper, who both were diagnosed early with prostate cancer, as examples of early detection. If the cancer was caught at later stages, treatment would have cost the city more in health care.
“There’s many others who aren’t visible public figures we’ve had an impact with,” she said.
COUNTING ON SAVINGS
A big driver of the trend toward wellness is money concerns — companies are increasingly facing up to the fact that skyrocketing health care expenditures are unsustainable, employers said.
“The reality is that many employers have realized there’s only so far you can cost-shift to employees” to control health care expenses, said Linda Levesque, vice president of human resources benefits at Unum Group and based at Unum’s site in Portland. “Many employers are stepping back and saying, ‘What other ways do we have to manage costs?’”
Three years ago, Unum added on-site health centers, which offer screenings and coaching from a nurse, at three of the company’s locations, including one in Chattanooga.
Unum officials said the company has seen real returns on the effort: Employees with chronic conditions who are regularly using the health centers have 23 percent fewer claims than those chronically ill employees who don’t use the center, officials said.
As part of a partnership with Life Care Centers of America, based in Cleveland, Tenn., Health Care 21 is setting up chronic care centers at a number of sites throughout the state, including ones in Chattanooga and Cleveland.
The company probably will have 200 employees with chronic conditions qualify for participation in the voluntary program, which in Chattanooga will be staffed by nurses from Erlanger hospital and Memorial Hospital, said Matt Golden, director of benefits for Life Care Centers of America.
Mr. Golden said he is confident the company’s investment of $100,000 in the first year will pay off.
“You know in your heart and soul that if you can save on emergency room visits, if you can keep someone in compliance and they can be here in work ... it’s bound to save money,” he said.
Health care reporter Emily Bregel has worked at the Chattanooga Times Free Press since July 2006. She previously covered banking and wrote for the Life section. Emily, a native of Baltimore, Md., earned a bachelor’s degree in American Studies from Columbia University. She received a first-place award for feature writing from the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists’ Golden Press Card Contest for a 2009 article about a boy with a congenital heart defect. She ...