Valley wellness programs boost employee health, lower costs | Crain's

Valley wellness programs boost employee health, lower costs

A Salt River Project employee takes advantage of a free skin-damage screening at the SRP Wellness Extravaganza. | Photo courtesy of the Salt River Project.

Salt River Project, one of Arizona’s largest employers, is offering a diabetes-awareness campaign for workers this year as well health screenings, including a test that can flag those at risk for diabetes.

It’s little surprise the utility is concerned about the toll diabetes has on workers’ health and the company bottom line. The cost of treating diagnosed diabetes cases reached $245 billion in 2012, a 41 percent increase from 2007, when the costs were last assessed, according to the American Diabetes Association.

“Diabetes is becoming quite an epidemic, especially in Arizona,” said Janet Robertson, a wellness benefits analyst at Salt River Project, or SRP. “This is one of the states with a higher prevalence, so that’s something we’re working on.” 

With over $3 billion in annual revenue, SRP provides electricity to approximately 1 million retail customers in three Arizona counties, including most of metropolitan Phoenix. With over 5,000 employees, SRP has “quite a robust wellness program,” she said.

SRP offers its employees a variety of biometric screenings, including the A1C test, which provides information about a person’s average blood sugar levels and can help flag for pre-diabetes or diabetes. SRP also offers mindfulness-based courses on stress reduction, which it subsidizes for its employees and retirees.

“They’re finding that it really helps, even with chronic pain conditions, anxiety and all kinds of other conditions,” Robertson said. “It also helps with cognition. It reduces fear and anger. So, that’s something we’re really excited about. We started it last year and we’ve had such great results that we’re going to continue it.”

Nationwide, companies began jumping on the wellness bandwagon more than a decade ago, partly with an eye toward reducing their employee health insurance costs. The programs, in general, include screenings for conditions like high blood pressure as well as weight-loss and smoking-cessation counseling.

Employee wellness has grown into an $8 billion industry, according to BenefitsPRO magazine for HR workers. And with that growth has come more scrutiny: A 2013 study by the RAND Corporation, for example, found that corporate programs were much more likely to show a strong ROI, or return on investment, when aimed at helping participants manage chronic conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure. The benefits of lifestyle-focused offerings were less pronounced. 

Even so, wellness programs in general help engage employees and build a positive company culture, according to BenefitsPRO.

At SRP, the wellness program has been well received by employees, according to Robertson. The program runs a “know your numbers” campaign, which emphasizes height, weight, body mass index, blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides and other health readings, such as the A1C.

“Our health program is self-funded,” Robertson said, “so anything we can do to help people get healthy, stay healthy and be motivated helps all of us keep our premiums lower. It’s really a win/win on both sides.”

SRP receives aggregate reporting of employee health outcomes from a third-party administrator and Robertson says the utility can see slight shifts taking place in some areas. The company is in the process of studying whether the program is reducing employee illnesses and subsequent absenteeism.  

As it stands, there is some evidence that the SRP wellness plan is resulting in a reduction in healthcare costs, which may be the result of personal health coaching. In Robertson’s estimation, the program is helping the company’s bottom line, as well as employee morale. Workers are actively participating in the program and their ranks are steadily growing.

“We run wellness screenings in the fall at our different SRP locations,” Robertson said. “From August through October of 2017, we had an increase of 50 percent in participation over 2016. That’s attributed to getting the word out and finding out what people want.”

SRP also offers its employees an online wellness portal that allows them to chart their progress over time. The employees have given testimonials that being able to track this information has allowed them to make better decisions. “It’s really helpful for people to know their health numbers so that they can make good decisions," Robertson said.

Sonora Quest Laboratories, which services hospitals, physicians and managed care organizations throughout Arizona, also offers wellness programs to its 2,600 employees. The company, a joint venture between Banner Health and Quest Diagnostics, participates in Banner’s health benefits, including its wellness program. 

Lorraine Field, Sonora Quest’s chief people officer, says this relationship provides her company a lot of leverage, due to the size of Banner, which has around 41,000 employees. 

“They offer a lot of wellness programs, the type of which are typical at big companies,” Field said. “If you do your biometrics every year, which are tracked, you get a contribution to your health savings account, which is a benefit offered through the health plan here. You get a discount, for example, if you’re a non-smoker. So, they really try to emphasize people staying healthy and participating in healthy things.”

Throughout the year, various programs that encourage activities such as walking and adequate water consumption are available. The programs are run by Banner Health coaches, who offer prizes to participating employees.

Most importantly, the coaches reach out and offer help to employees who have chronic illnesses. Sonora Quest also offers discounts for weight-loss programs, such as Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig.

Though Field says she can’t speak directly to the wellness programs' ROI because they are administered by Banner Health, her sense is that insurance claims are going down due to these programs. 

“Typically, you see that trend when companies put an emphasis on wellness,” Field said. “You see a return in the form of reduced claims.”  

Sonora Quest tracks absenteeism, and the company's levels are pretty good although Field says she can’t directly correlate that with the wellness program. However, she notes that employee engagement in the program is high, which is surely a net positive. 

“I think that providing opportunities for employees to be healthy and stay healthy is important to a workplace culture,” Field said.

January 19, 2018 - 2:10pm