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Employers Are Resizing Wellness Plans

With a diverse employee base, one size doesn’t fit all for Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey.

February 11, 2014
Related Topics: Benefit Design and Communication, Health and Wellness, Health Care Benefits, The Latest, Benefits

When it comes to wellness, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey found employees’ interests and needs are as diverse as the employees themselves.
About half of the Newark, New Jersey-based company’s 5,000 employees are members of minority groups — African-Americans, Asians and Hispanics — with unique cultural backgrounds.

To develop a wellness program that works, “We realized one size is not going to fit all, especially given the diverse nature of our employees,” said Cynthia Tobia, director of compensation, benefits and wellness.

That correlates with a report released last November by the Northeast Business Group on Health titled “Weight Control and the Workplace,” which finds wellness programs need to be tailored to individuals, rather than implementing generic plans.

“We’re at the beginning stages of figuring out what works,” said Laurel Pickering, executive director of the workplace health advocacy group.

Determining what works is imperative if employers want to help reduce obesity rates and their financial toll. According to the report, obese employees cost employers $73 billion each year. They file twice as many workers’ compensation claims as employees of healthy weight. The cost of medical claims per 100 employees is $7,500 for healthy-weight employees, but soars to $51,000 if employees are obese. Obese men take six more sick days and obese women take 9½ more sick days than their counterparts of healthy weight.

Expanding Wellness Plans
Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey offers financial classes on topics including budgeting, college savings and women and investing. “We want to educate people on their financial well-being,” said Cynthia Tobia, director of compensation, benefits and wellness. “That takes away part of the stress, and stress leads to lots of chronic conditions.”

The firm’s cafeteria and vending machines offer healthier choices, and a nutritionist holds cooking demonstrations and shows employees how to remake dishes so they’re healthier.

BCBS now is setting up a system so employees can earn points for purchasing healthy meals.

By collecting enough points, starting in 2014 employees can earn discounts on their health insurance premiums of up to $500 a year, Tobia said.
— Susan Ladika

Eighty percent of Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield’s employees are women.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 36 percent of U.S. adults are obese. Citing figures from the Journal of the American Medical Association, the CDC reports non-Hispanic blacks have the highest age-adjusted rates of obesity at 49.5 percent. That compares with 39 percent obesity rates for Hispanics and 34 percent for non-Hispanic whites.

For Horizon, the Journey to Health program has evolved with time. When it was rolled out in 2007, the focus was on increasing employee awareness and education on wellness issues with an emphasis on biometric measures.

The program was relaunched in 2011 and emphasized three pillars: increasing employees’ activity, providing better nutritional choices and improving their financial well-being. Taking part in certain activities — from walking to taking financial classes to getting a mammogram — can earn employees points through Virgin Pulse.
The program began by trying to boost activity levels by handing out pedometers and encouraging employees to regularly walk 7,000 steps. They also can earn points for taking part in other physical activities, such as tennis or bicycling.

The Newark headquarters has a fitness center and offers classes such as spin and Zumba, and the company is introducing less formal activities, such as a half-hour of dancing in the auditorium. It’s an acknowledgment that “people do things differently,” Tobia said.

Employees can also earn points for getting preventive screenings, such as physicals and colonoscopies.

A wellness coach checks on a pilot group of employees regularly, coming by their desks to check blood pressure and other measures, and develops individual wellness plans. In a new program, chronic care nurses hold face-to-face counseling sessions with those with chronic conditions such as obesity and diabetes. “We’ve found telephone coaching really doesn’t work very well,” Tobia said.

Pickering said the main challenge for organizations is employee engagement. “If it’s specific to me and tailored to me, I’m more likely to engage and participate,” she said.
As part of that, it’s important to recognize employee diversity and different ethnic groups’ attitudes about food, she said.

Since Horizon shifted the emphasis of its wellness program in 2011, physical activity has increased to more than 8,000 steps from an average of 5,900, Tobia said. The company has yet to release other findings, but so far has seen health insurance claims and measures of body mass index and smoking “all trending in the right direction.”

Susan Ladika is a writer based in Tampa, Florida. Comment below or email Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.


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