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Companies Target Moms-to-Be With Wellness Programs

March 11, 2008
Kim Tuffarelli couldn’t kick her cold. Stuffed up, congested and six months pregnant, she was dying to take some medicine, but knew she probably shouldn’t, since pregnant women are advised not to take cold medication. Still, Tuffarelli, a workforce relations consultant at Pitney Bowes, was finding it hard to get any work done and was seriously considering going to her doctor to see if he could do anything.

As if she could read Tuffarelli’s mind, a registered nurse with Nationwide Better Health, a Columbus, Ohio-based wellness provider, called to see how Tuffarelli was feeling. She suggested a number of home remedies for her to try, such as drinking lemon tea and boiling water to breathe in the vapors. A few days later, Tuffarelli was feeling much better.

The nurse is part of a service that Pitney Bowes provides pregnant employees and dependents as part of its Great Expectations program. Once women sign up for the program, they are given a dedicated nurse who will call to check up on them throughout their pregnancies and after.

Pitney Bowes is among a number of companies that are offering wellness programs that target mothers-to-be. While 10 years ago many employers viewed pregnant employees as liabilities, today companies are seeing the potential for cost savings by reaching out to this group, experts say.

Maternal and child health care services account for one out of every five dollars large employers spend on health care, according to a recent report by the National Business Group on Health. That doesn’t account for the productivity time employers lose when their employees are tending to sick babies and children, experts say.

And as more women seek to have babies later in life, many are turning to fertility treatments—which can often result in high-risk pregnancies and births of multiples. The birthrate of twins has jumped 42 percent since 1990, according to the U.S. Department of Health. The percentage of babies delivered prematurely—before 37 weeks—has jumped 21 percent over the same period. Each year employers spend $9 billion on claims related to prematurity, according to the March of Dimes, which aims to prevent birth defects, infant mortality and premature births.

“Helping women to have healthy pregnancies is not just a nice thing to do; it’s a business imperative,” says Helen Darling, president of the National Business Group on Health. The business case for these programs is even more pronounced for companies that cover fertility treatments under their health care plans, says Patti Freedman, a senior health care consultant at Watson Wyatt Worldwide.

“If I was an employer with fertility benefits, I would tell employees that in order to get these benefits, they have to take part in the wellness program,” she says.

Dulles, Virginia-based AOL, which does cover fertility benefits, began offering its WellBaby Program in 2003. Before that, the company offered over-the-phone counseling for pregnant employees and dependents, but then decided it wanted to do something that would reach out to more employees, says Michaela Oliver, senior vice president of HR.

“The No. 1 reason AOL employees go on disability is to have babies,” Oliver says. “So we try to take a proactive approach to make sure babies and families are healthy.”

Also, AOL has a large female population. Thirty-eight percent of benefit-eligible employees are women, and the average age at AOL is 37. Eighty-six percent of participants in the WellBaby program had high-risk pregnancies.

Like Pitney Bowes’ GreatExpectations Program, AOL’s WellBaby service provides pregnant employees and beneficiaries with a case manager who works to answer questions and provide support. AOL also offers a lactation program that lets employees receive lactation counseling both in-person and over the phone.

Just last year, AOL added a preconception component to its WellBaby program. In it, care managers are assigned to women and their partners to help them with preconception planning, nutrition, and financial and emotional issues and to offer more information on infertility treatments if needed.

“Until this program, we would usually only hear from women once they were finished with their first trimester of pregnancy,” says Jackie Gillispie, compensation and benefits consultant at AOL. “But this way, we can help them from the very beginning.”

And AOL has seen results. Of the 650 beneficiaries and employees who had babies last year, 215 were participants in the program. In 2007, AOL saved an estimated $400,000 in just preterm labor prevention. Of the five sets of twins born last year, only one set was born prematurely.

Executives agree that the biggest challenge to offering a program like this is getting the word out to employees and dependents. Pitney Bowes sends mailers out and features its Great Expectations Program on its employee portal.

To generate buzz about the program, the company, which makes postage meters and other products for business mailing, gives participants a jumper when their babies are born. It features a “special delivery” stamp announcing the baby’s name, weight, time of birth and city.

“It’s a $25 item, but people just love it,” says Dr. Brent Pawlecki, corporate medical director. The company also provides discount coupons for breast pumps as an incentive to participate.

Employers also can use these kinds of programs to get the word out about other wellness programs provided by the company, says Lesli Marasco, director of work/life and dependent care solutions at Abbott Laboratories, an Abbott Park, Illinois-based health care company that offers a Healthy Pregnancy Program.

“We make sure that the nurses know about all of the various vendors we work with and services we offer,” she says. “So for example, if a nurse in our Healthy Pregnancy Program senses depression, she could recommend our employee assistance program.”

The challenge that many companies face with regard to marketing these programs to employees is that while they want to get the word out and increase participation, they don’t want employees to feel that their privacy is being violated, Freedman says.

“Women often try to keep their pregnancies a secret from their employers as long as possible because they are worried about the ramifications,” she says. “Employers have to tread lightly with these programs.”

But when done right, the return on investment is worth it, executives say. “As little as tens of dollars [of] investment can impact thousands of dollars of costs,” Pawlecki says.

Tuffarelli, for one, believes that having her own private nurse checking up on her helped her to be more productive and engaged throughout her pregnancy.

Even after her daughter Camryn was born in June, Nationwide Better Health’s nurse checked in to see how things were going.

“My girlfriends would be amazed that it was a service being offered by my company,” she says. “It really is a helpful program, particularly for new moms like me.”

Workforce Management, March 3, 2008, p. 23 -- Subscribe Now!