Sunday, February 25, 2018
News Roundup

Pasco officials weigh employee wellness options to curb insurance costs

The vending machine on the third floor of the West Pasco Government Center advertises Tropicana juices. That's misleading.

"There's not a single juice selection in the whole machine," said Marc Bellas, the county's personnel manager, who described the vending machine fare of sodas, salt- and sugar-filled snacks as "not pretty."

Neither is the county's health insurance tab, which is on track to skyrocket more than 17 percent this fiscal year, with average monthly premiums rising from $635 to $747 per employee. Payouts for care also are up, from $10 million last fiscal year to an anticipated $13 million by the end of this one in September. The county's employees have also used more than 142,000 sick leave hours and 30,000 unpaid leave hours, which are often linked to illness.

"The fact is we are using our insurance. That's why it keeps going up," Bellas said. "Something has to change."

That "something," county officials say, is the health of the county's 2,000 employees and their dependents. County officials are in the beginning stages of researching options for an employee wellness program that would encourage staffers to eat healthier, exercise more, and prevent or manage disease. They hope to have it in place by the time open enrollment begins in August.

The initiative follows other governments' efforts to cut costs or at least slow the rising rates.

The Pasco County School District embarked upon a wellness program two years ago that has yielded significant results. Other municipal governments have also enacted similar programs. The city of Gainesville won an award from the Wellness Councils of America in 2002 for a program started in 1992 that provides employees with 24-hour access to gyms as well as health screenings and classes. It also offers insurance rebates to those who adopt healthy habits. Since it began, the city's health care costs have remained below the national average.

"We've been able to reduce the amount of claims," said Rod Clark, the city's wellness program coordinator. "We get phone calls all the time from other groups about our program."

Pasco officials admit it's early in the process, but they have begun by forming a committee that includes rank-and-file staffers as well as managers. Also included are the unions that represent about half the county workforce, as well as staffers from the Tax Collector, Property Appraiser and Supervisor of Elections offices, which are on the county's health plan. The Clerk of Court's office is self-insured.

The group began by conducting an employee survey to gauge interest.

The results were encouraging. More than 700 staffers responded, with 100 of those coming on paper forms.

"So folks in the field had to ask their supervisor to print it out and they had to fill it out by hand and get it back to us in personnel," Bellas said. "That says a lot."

The survey centered on nutrition, fitness, education and insurance.

Of those who responded, 78 percent said they would eat healthy snacks if they were made available, while 59 percent expressed interest in a formal walking program.

Employees' main concern was convenience.

"They said 'I'm in Dade City; don't forget me,' or 'I'm in Zephyrhills; don't forget me,' " Bellas said. "We have to make it easily accessible to everyone who wants to participate."

As for nutrition, a wellness program might incorporate features such as healthy food truck rallies or farmers markets. A community garden was also suggested. People also wanted education on healthy options.

Another key area that drew heavy interest was stress management, with 52 percent rating it as a primary need.

That's not surprising, Bellas said, given the tough economy.

County commissioners last week approved working with Gallagher Benefits Services (no relation to County Administrator John Gallagher) to coordinate a wellness program and overhaul the county's health insurance program. The county's insurance carrier, FloridaBlue, is also providing about $75,000 to help "seed" the wellness program.

The program could also affect premiums, said County Commissioner Henry Wilson Jr., who is on the committee. County employees currently get free coverage, though they must pay premiums for family members.

"We're talking about tiered plans," said Wilson, who worked in managed care for a Tampa radiology firm. "If you don't do anything to help yourself, then you pay this. If you help yourself a little bit, you'll pay this. If you do everything we're suggesting you do, then you pay this. There's a lot of things on the table and that's one of those things."

That's similar to a wellness program at Florida Hospital Zephyrhills. Staffers there get cash rewards for avoiding tobacco and reducing their body mass indexes, with those who maintain a normal weight getting the most money. The hospital is also adding "life coaches" to help employees reach not only their fitness goals but also achieve optimum work/life balance.

"By investing in the health of our team members, we are ensuring that they are able to take better care of themselves as well as our patients and their families," said Doug Duffield, the hospital's president and chief executive officer.

County personnel director Barbara DeSimone said everything is being considered to reduce health care costs.

"This is not sustainable," she said of the rising costs.

The school district's wellness clinic have attracted attention and might be a good model, she said.

The three school-based clinics offer free appointments and medications, in addition to preventive wellness programs for employees.

Last year, the district, which spent $1.5 million on its wellness program, 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.

"Maybe we could piggyback with them or expand them," DeSimone said. Bellas said the school district has expressed interest in expanding that network, and that's perhaps where the county could become a partner.

In the short term, officials are looking at quick, low-cost ways to make changes now. That includes replacing the sugar, salt and fat-laden offerings in the vending machines, though Bellas assured everyone that not all sweets would disappear.

"There are some times when you need a Snickers bar," he said. "I get that, but not on a regular basis."


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