Workplace wellness program saves Regence $9.2 million

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photoAmy Walloch, wellness programs manager, Regence BlueCross BlueShield.

Healthy workplaces in Clark County

Several cities and businesses in Clark County are recognized as having healthy workplaces.

• Clark College is recognized by the Washington Health Care Authority as a Washington Well Workplace.

• Camas and Washougal are WellCity Award recipients from the Association of Washington Cities (AWC), and receive a two percent discount from their health insurer.

• Nautilus, Inc., Infinity Internet and Corwin Beverage are gold-level Start! Fit-Friendly Companies, recently honored by the American Heart Association.

These organizations, and others such as Wellness Councils of America (Welcoa), can help both public and private sector employers establish or improve their workplace wellness programs, focusing on strategies proven to work on increasing productivity and curbing medical costs.

AWC is sponsoring a webinar Nov. 17 to help Washington cities learn what to do in 2012 to qualify for WellCity status in 2013.

Companies increasingly seek to curb health care costs through an employee wellness program, but experts say it’s not always clear whether the programs work or save money.

To find out, Regence Finance and Human Resource departments partnered for a hard look at the health plan’s award-winning employee wellness program. In contrast to most published studies, Regence wanted a comprehensive accounting of all direct program costs to calculate the return on investment (ROI). Many wellness ROI studies skip this step.

Even with rigorous accounting for direct program costs, Regence identified medical savings and improved productivity, as well as a positive ROI.

Over a five-year period from 2005 to 2009, Regence identified an ROI of $1.78 for every dollar spent on the program. Savings correlated according to employee participation:

  • Lower medical costs than nonparticipants, saving $3.47 million.
  • Fewer unplanned absence hours than nonparticipants, saving $2.9 million.
  • Lower disability claims than nonparticipants, saving $2.83 million.

“The strong partnership we developed between Human Resources and Finance is unique,” said Regence Human Resources Director Denise Johnson. “We believe this contributes to our research being one of the most credible ROI studies out there.”

As is common with such studies, productivity savings were identified by comparing results for participants versus nonparticipants. However, the medical savings were identified through a more stringent measure of comparing them with a risk-matched sample (similar age, health risk factors and occupation) of non-Regence employees.

Regence’s broad-based wellness program focuses on rewards for changing behavior, such as 35 percent discounts on healthier fare in on-site cafeterias; company-wide pedometer and other activity challenges, whose points can be redeemed for gift cards; and classes on health-affecting issues such as stress and financial security. Eighty-three percent of Regence employees participate in at least one of the many components of the wellness program.

In addition to the actual cost savings measured, employees reported in their annual health risk assessments (HRA) that they had reduced some risk factors for disease. According to self-reported data in 2007 and 2009 HRAs of 1,432 employees, significant findings include:

  • Overall, average number of risk factors is reduced from 2.60/person to 2.41/person from the 2007 and 2009, a reduction of 7.3%
  • Physical inactivity dropped 15.5%
  • Fatty diet dropped 15.4%
  • Diet low in healthy carbohydrates dropped 14.0%
  • Tobacco use dropped 9.0%.

“It’s great to see the savings,” said Johnson, “but we also do this because we believe it’s the right thing. Employees spend a third or more of their day at work. Creating a vibrant wellness culture at Regence makes us better able to support our members and build healthier communities for everyone.”

Amy Walloch, wellness programs manager at Regence BlueCross BlueShield, is a certified Health & Fitness Specialist, has been with Regence for nearly 10 years. Before joining Regence, she was program coordinator for 12 years at FitnessWest, Corporate Fitness Consultants. Amy has a B.A. in sports management from Washington State University in Pullman, is a member of the American College of Sports Medicine and a member of the Executive Women’s Golf Association.