Living

Employers shift focus to preventing obesity

The seven most common chronic diseases - six of which can be caused or worsened by obesity - are costing employers $1.1 trillion in lost productivity, a recent study says.

The Milken Institute, an economic think tank, released its research last month showing that these common diseases - including diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure - have an annual economic impact in the U.S. of $1.3 trillion.

The kicker is that much of the cost is avoidable, researchers say. Because employers supply most of the nation's health benefits, the onus likely will fall on them to improve the health of their employees.

"Among the avoidable risk factors is obesity, which happens to be the fastest-growing risk factor in any of the ones we profiled in our study," said Kevin Klowden, a managing economist with Milken.

A 2003 study found obesity and overweight conditions contribute as much as $93 billion to the nation's annual medical bill.

"Obesity is clearly an issue for employers," said Wichita wellness and prevention expert James Early. He is medical director of Solutions for Life in partnership with Via Christi Regional Medical Center and director of clinical preventive medicine for the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita.

"It's a problem that's not going away ... and employers are having to find ways to help rein in those costs. Many are starting with a prevention and wellness policy," he said.

"It's not just about (discounted) gym passes anymore. It's much more complex."

Last year, employers nationwide absorbed premium increases ranging from 8.3 percent to 9.6 percent among the most popular health plans, according to a health plan survey by United Benefit Advisors, an association of independent brokers.

This year, employers projected they will see increases ranging from 11.4 percent to more than 12 percent, a jump that could cripple some businesses already struggling to maintain viable employee benefits.

The survey forecast increases this year for the Kansas-Missouri region from 7 percent to 12.8 percent, a significant jump from last year's regional range of 4.2 percent to 5.1 percent.

Employers are looking for answers.

Many say they already have overburdened their employees by shifting costs to them through everything from high-deductible health plans to higher co-pays and out-of-pocket limits.

That's why employers are intrigued by the potential savings from in-house wellness programs.

"There's a chance it could help keep costs down, so it's worth exploring," said Sheryl Wohlford, president and co-owner of Automation Plus, a Wichita manufacturing firm with 15 employees.

The company saw a 7 percent premium hike this year and is always looking for ways to afford good health benefits for its employees, Wohlford said.

"There's such a focus on health and wellness and having the best workplace you can provide, so that just may become a regular benefit in the future," she said.

With costs relating to health and productivity accounting for at least 20 percent of their payrolls, employers have a significant opportunity to influence their bottom lines, industry experts said.

These wellness programs are designed to provide employees with tools to improve their health and lifestyles and address everything from smoking to obesity.

The more sophisticated wellness programs analyze employee health profiles and claims and help an employer focus on problems areas.

Some companies have created proprietary tools that calculate returns on investment in their employee wellness programs.

Many employers have begun penalizing unhealthy behaviors among employees - such as charging higher premiums to employees who smoke.

But many employers also are offering financial incentives and rewards for healthy lifestyles, and some of that means tackling obesity and the risk factors the condition creates.

Cessna Aircraft Co. is celebrating its first full year with a comprehensive wellness program that offers a financial incentive to employees who complete a health risk assessment and get a physical and blood screening.

It has gone so well, the company is experiencing a 70 percent participation rate, said Jim Walters, senior vice president for human resources.

"We're not going to attack or address obesity directly ... but in this first year, we're really trying to get our employees focused on paying attention to their well-being, their health," he said.

"We're hearing anecdotally that people are discovering the onset of diabetes and other potentially serious diseases they otherwise would not have discovered."

Two Wichita businesses are combating rising health care costs by bringing a health care provider directly to their employees this year.

The concept takes employee wellness programs a step further by stressing preventive care and early detection as well as providing minor health care services that aim to reduce absenteeism, increase employee morale and cut down on medical claims.

Love Box Co. and Glickman Metal Recycling began offering free on-site physician services in March.

"We really focus a lot on physical health, quit-smoking programs ... and the fact we have a doctor who comes in to help monitor that really helps," said Craig McCollar, assistant manager for Glickman, which has two yards and 75 employees in Wichita.

"Most of our employees wouldn't go outside to get help because co-pays are so outrageous these days," McCollar said. "If we can offer a place to come without co-pays ... we're helping managing their health."

Care ATC, the Tulsa, Okla.-based company that manages the two employer medical clinics in Wichita, said the investment pays off for employers in the end.

The company, whose clients include Tootsie Roll in Tennessee and QuikTrip's headquarters in Tulsa, manages 36 employer-based clinics in eight states, including eight clinics in Kansas.

"I can tell you this: Every client that has been with us for five years, their health costs at the end of the fifth year is at a minimum 10 percent below what they were the year before they implemented Care ATC," said Paul Keeling, sales director.

Medical director James Baker said employers also can help themselves by implementing small but simple changes that combat obesity and get employees to start thinking healthier.

His ideas include putting healthy food in vending machines and encouraging employee fitness routines, such as lunchtime walking, he said.

"Weight loss is a huge contributing factor to health costs," Baker said. "If we start to turn this ship around, we can at least stabilize (costs).

"If we don't do something to control this, we won't be able to afford (health care) at all."

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OBESITY'S COSTS

_Individuals who are obese have 30 to 50 percent more chronic medical problems than those who smoke or drink heavily, according to a UCLA study.

_Roughly 8 percent of private employer medical claims are a result of problems associated with being overweight or obese, according to policy journal Health Affairs.

_Another study found that obesity-related disabilities cost employers an average of $8,720 per claimant every year for wage-loss coverage.

_The total cost of obesity to U.S. companies is estimated at $13 billion a year, including health insurance costs ($8 billion), sick leave ($2.4 billion), life insurance ($1.8 billion), and disability insurance ($1 billion), according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

_The percentage of U.S. adults classified as obese roughly doubled between 1980 and 2000, from 15 percent to 31 percent, federal researchers found.

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© 2007, The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.).

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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