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Employers offer incentives for workers to live healthier

Employers are trying a new tactic to prod workers to live healthier lives and thus reduce medical costs: more creative and often lucrative incentives.

Many employers are spending more money on wellness programs to help people eat right, get regular exercise, manage stress and quit smoking.

And they're experimenting with ways to motivate employees to switch or stick to healthful habits, said LuAnn Heinen, vice president of the National Business Group on Health, a group of large employers. "It's not a lack of knowledge that's the problem," she said.

Among the incentives: additional time off, prize drawings, discounts on health-plan premiums or gym memberships, and even cash.

Your health insurance likely has gotten more expensive and less comprehensive in the past decade. Now is a good time to see what your employer may have put on the table to help you improve your health and productivity.

Employers spent an average $220 per worker on wellness incentive awards last year, up 35 percent from $163 in 2009, according to a survey of more than 1,200 employers by Buck Consultants, a benefits consulting group.

Many wellness programs include a confidential health screening where workers can fill out a health-assessment questionnaire or have routine tests to alert them to their blood sugar and cholesterol levels. But some programs are branching out in unconventional directions.

A focus on wellness has helped Sarasota County government lower the cost of health care premiums by 3 percent this year, said Angela Gustafson, a registered nurse and the county's wellness-development adviser.

Sarasota County, which employs 3,200 people, offers 33 on-site group exercise classes over staggered lunch hours and before and after work, she said. Nearly a third of the classes, including spinning, yoga and Zumba, are taught by qualified employee volunteers.

Workers also can take advantage of four free sessions a year with a personal trainer. That has boosted use of the county's five fitness centers, Gustafson said, but gym-averse employees can tap trainers to start a fitness regimen as simple as walking. Those who complete their four free sessions also get $25. Workers can earn up to $100 a year by participating in wellness activities.

Helping workers better cope with stress is also a priority. Medical and prescription-drug spending has dropped among 911 operators since a stress-management program began in 2009, Gustafson said.

And after seeing good results from a program where employees with medical conditions worked with a dietician, the county is letting all workers see the dietician for free.

Where Sarasota County takes a hard line is with job applicants who smoke: It won't hire them. Tobacco use is often where wellness benefits are richest or most punitive. Large employers often offer incentives of $250 or more to entice smokers to quit, Heinen said. But a few tack a surcharge onto tobacco users' health-insurance premiums.

Employers offer incentives for workers to live healthier 02/21/11 [Last modified: Monday, February 21, 2011 5:35pm]
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