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0117homespunweb1.jpgRISMEDIA, Jan. 17, 2008-(MCT)-Businesses are looking at ways to increase productivity and save some money on the rising costs of health insurance premiums. Employers have offered gym memberships, paid for smoking-cessation classes and stocked apples in vending machines. Health-conscious workers exercised and gave thanks.

But those on the path to physical ruin — the chronically stressed, the obese, the exercise-averse — ignored the corporate call to wellness.

“Obviously, if your employees are healthier, you’re not having attendance issues,” said Diana Slater, human resources director for the city of St. Joseph, Mo.

The city offers three levels of insurance to its employees, paying the full cost only for the core plan, but giving a $10 discount to employees who participate in a wellness program.

The city and many other businesses pay for all or a portion of gym membership dues. About 35 local companies are registered with the YMCA’s Corporate Wellness Plan, a concept that’s been around before the recent spike in insurance premiums.

“It encourages healthy habits,” said Catherine Sowinski about why employers are encouraging participation. The membership and marketing director at the YMCA said it’s a big incentive when an employer offers to step up and help out with membership costs. “It’s a little harder to get them (exercising) if they don’t,” she said.

Offering more healthful choices is the latest move in a growing effort by employers to encourage workers to take more responsibility for their own health. Now, spurred by health-care hyperinflation, some companies are speaking a language that gets everyone’s attention: money.

Insurance companies are giving discounts and rebates on health-insurance premiums as well as offering lower co-pays and richer benefits to employees who renounce their unhealthful ways.

Community Health Plan has an option for its clients to offer benefits to people who do not smoke.

“It’s not penalizing those that do (smoke), but it’s a discount for non-smokers,” said Amy Owens, health improvement communications manager at CHP.

Yet better premiums and benefits go beyond vices like smoking. CHP works with Heartland Health’s Wellness Connections, having the program built into some of its insurance plans.

Owens explains that Wellness Connections screens employees for overall health. A report stating low, medium or high risk is given to the individual, as well as an overall report on risks to the employer.

“They can see where their company lies but wouldn’t see individual reports,” Ms. Owens said. “We offer wellness classes and two on-site classes that are tailored to those health risks.”

Small business owners have more on their plate than most when it comes to the rising costs of insurance.

“The primary issue is affordability,” said Ted Allison, president of the St. Joseph Area Chamber of Commerce. “The continual spiral of health care costs has risen to a point where it’s an issue for every business whether it’s small or large in the community because everyone has come to realize that these are costs that have to be recovered somewhere.”

Six in 10 companies with fewer than 199 employees offer health insurance and the percentage is declining annually, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Less than half of companies with nine or fewer workers offer health insurance benefits.

Keeping deductibles at an affordable rate and still providing top notch quality care for employees are important things to Doug Bibens, president of Midland Steel. The Wathena, Kan., company has 70 employees.

“The challenge itself is to provide good coverage,” said Bob Housh, financial officer at the company. “Each year we cut benefits and increase costs. Obviously, we shop it every year.”

Bibens said the company tries to promote healthful lifestyles. Being a member of the corporate YMCA program and participating in the annual health screenings are just a few.

But the reality of changes in the health insurance industry are always a subtle reminder that times have changed.

“What started out as a Cadillac plan has definitely changed,” Housh said.

Copyright © 2008, St. Joseph News-Press, Mo.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.