published Monday, April 26th, 2010

Wellness program cuts health care costs

WELL ADVANTAGE PROGRAM

* In-house pharmacy for city employees to get prescription drugs at discounted prices. About 200 prescriptions a day are filled.

* Medical clinic where doctors and nurses provide quick-care services to about 50 patients a day, not including occupational visits.

* Rewards for employees who quit smoking, exercise and practice other healthy habits.

* Fitness center allows city employees to work out near where they work. The center attracts about 50 users on a typical day.

Chattanooga may be facing higher costs next year for more police officers, pension benefits and stormwater cleanup, but the city's fiscal health is getting some help from the health of its employees.

The city's health insurance costs are projected to decline slightly next year, according to estimates by BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, which administers the program.

"The change isn't dramatic, but staying even at all is a dramatic accomplishment when most other employers are being hit with double-digit increases," Mayor Ron Littlefield said.

City Personnel Director Donna Kelley credits the improvement to the city's Well Advantage program, which includes a city-operated pharmacy, fitness center and medical clinic along with employee incentives for improving health habits.

"Our Well Advantage program is magical," she said.

Jane DuBose, an insurance market analyst for HealthLeaders-InterStudy Research in Nashville, said the costs of most employer-sponsored health care plans are rising this year from 8 percent to 15 percent.

"It's too early to tell the success of most wellness programs, but it obviously looks pretty successful for Chattanooga if they have been able to avoid any cost increase in health coverage," she said.

The city expects to spend just under $23.5 million on health care coverage for its 2,900 employees and retirees in the fiscal year that begins July 1. The city estimates it will spend a comparable amount in the current fiscal year after spending $24.7 million this year on employee health care coverage.

The savings are in contrast to the extra expenses Mr. Littlefield said he expects next year from adding more police officers, expanding the city's stormwater program and shoring up employees' pension plans.

The Well Advantage program includes a disease management component that has helped control utilization rates among certain employees, Ms. Kelly said.

City employees also have been eligible to earn rewards for exercising regularly, quitting smoking or losing weight.

The in-house pharmacy has cut prescription drug costs for nearly all workers, she said. The pharmacy is projected to save the city $8.5 million over three years by buying prescription drugs used by city employees at discounted prices.

At the city-operated pharmacy on 10th Street downtown, city employees and their dependents can obtain generic medication for $2 for a 30-day supply and $5 for a 90-day supply.

"The pharmacy has really been a very positive impact for our employees," said Dan Johnson, chief of staff for Mr. Littlefield. "One employee told me, 'Every time I go to the city pharmacy to pick up a prescription, it's like getting a raise.'"

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