DADE CITY — Lose weight.
Rita Mitchell had heard the words many times before.
But it wasn't until the Cox Elementary School prekindergarten teacher got the advice during a health risk assessment at the Pasco County school district's wellness center that she took the message to heart. Mitchell learned she was at risk for diabetes, and heard loud and clear what ignoring the signs could mean.
"It was enough to get my attention," she said. "This thing, if left unattended, it can kill you. She told me to lose weight. I've been hearing that for years. But it was like, hello."
Flash forward a year, and Mitchell is a new woman.
"I just turned 50, and I lost 50," she said. "I am excited."
Her success mirrors that of many other district employees, and of the health clinic program that the school district introduced two years ago.
The School Board approved spending about $1.5 million a year to operate three school-based clinics, offering free appointments and medications, in addition to preventive wellness programs for employees. The idea was that the district would save money in the long run by reducing insurance claims and related expenses.
Last year, the district saw its claims drop by more than $2 million, with per-employee costs down by nearly 5 percent. Its rates did not increase as much as expected, allowing the board to use savings to reduce the number of furlough days imposed on employees.
Its focus on diabetes care resulted in a 34 percent decrease in related claims, and the district saw a 26 percent increase in diabetes patients actually getting the monitoring tests they need. Its efforts on weight reduction, expected to net about 1,000 pounds among participants, totaled a loss of 3,800 pounds by those employees.
Use of the centers has been so strong, in fact, that the district is considering opening two others, as well as a center focused on occupational health and physical therapy. District benefits director Mary Tillman said they had to add staff to the centers over the summer to meet the growing demand.
With medical costs rising, Tillman said, the only real way to cut expenses is to get people healthy. Making visits convenient and affordable, while focusing on managing chronic illnesses and catching problems before they get out of hand, has allowed the district to make such strides.
"I'm very proud of our wellness centers," said School Board chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong, who sits on the district health and wellness incentives committee. "I really feel like it's been a win-win situation for the district and the employees."
Armstrong said she and her husband both take advantage of the services the clinics offer, and can see firsthand the benefits. Other districts have started looking at Pasco as a model, she added, as they consider establishing their own wellness programs.
Connie Gee, vice president of Med-Vision, which helped design the wellness plan, credited the district's organized approach to wellness initiatives as a key to its success.
"At Pasco schools we're working very purposefully," Gee said. "Many companies have programs that are really just events."
She said the district chose focus areas such as diabetes and obesity, and set clear goals to attain. It then sent out information about the activities to all employees, letting them know what would be available.
That's how Mitchell first learned of the program.
She was first attracted by the free consultation, then spurred to action by the findings. After that, she kept with the push to tackle her weight by the convenient availability of a dietitian and nutritionist, who referred her to easy-to-use computerized monitoring programs.
Her efforts began slowly, adding healthier foods to her diet and deciding when she didn't need to eat at all. Next came exercise, just 10 minutes at a targeted heart rate, which soon morphed into a walking and then a club of walkers. Suddenly she became conscious that she was being healthier.
"When the weight started dropping, it was like, oh my goodness. I am losing weight and it is not going to kill me," Mitchell said.
People started to notice. She stayed motivated. And the efforts paid off.
She's got more energy, less stress, and best of all, she has a better time interacting with her young students.
"I can bend down and spend time with the children," Mitchell said.
"They all celebrated I could get down on the floor with them and get back up. They've had the answer all along. They don't stop moving."
And now neither does she.
"I am grateful they did this for us," Mitchell said.
The district plans to build on its successes by expanding its wellness goals in 2013, Gee said. They include helping people better deal with depression and anxiety issues, and assisting with reduction in blood pressure, cholesterol and smoking.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.
This article has been revised to reflect the following clarification: Med-Vision helped design the Pasco school district's employee wellness plan. A different firm runs the day-to-day operations of the wellness centers. A previous version of this article was unclear on Med-Vision's role.