March 4, 2013

Tax Credit Sweetens Workplace Wellness Programs

As health care costs rise and employers connect the dots between employee health and productivity, more employers are turning to wellness programs to help boost their bottom line.

And that's expected to become easier as part of a health care cost containment bill signed by Gov. Deval Patrick last summer made room for a tax credit covering 25 percent of the cost of implementing a wellness program, up to $10,000 per fiscal year, for businesses with fewer than 500 employees. The credit, which took effect Jan. 1 and will remain through 2017, also requires that employers with approved wellness programs receive discounts on their insurance premiums.

"The tax credit is absolutely going to drive more organizations to give serious consideration to either continuing their programs or starting their programs," said Mari Ryan, CEO of Watertown-based AdvancingWellness and chair of the Worksite Wellness Council of Massachusetts.

Cathy Hartman, vice president of prevention and wellness for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, said the nonprofit insurer is already seeing an uptick in requests from clients that might qualify, once the state determines the requirements for the wellness program credit.

Programs have changed considerably, Hartman said.

"Five or 10 years ago, wellness was really about offering kind of siloed initiatives (like) having on-site Weight Watchers or gym memberships," Hartman said. Today, more employers offer a comprehensive health management approach, she said, improving employee health and productivity.

Pam Callahan, training coordinator for the city of Worcester, began implementing a program for city employees seven years ago, helped by insurance providers, such as Fallon Community Health Plan, which has offered smoking- cessation programs for employees and their family members. Now, a representative from each city department serves on a committee that helps lay out an annual plan to get employees active.

Callahan said the most successful part of the program so far has been a 12-week Extreme Loser weight loss competition. She said six months or a year later, many are still going strong after getting into fitness for the first time, and the results have been "dramatic." Last year's winner lost 40 pounds in 12 weeks.

"The national average is it takes three to five years to see the actual return on investment" in wellness programs, she said. "However, what you see is healthier people (and) more productive people."

She said attendance program participation numbers are up.

"We know that the average (productivity) cost of poor employee health to an employer is, on average, $13,000 a year," Hartman said. "I think most folks don't realize about 25 percent of that is attributed to medical costs and 75 percent of that is attributed to lost productivity."

Ryan, of AdvancingWellness, said companies typically see a $1 to $3 return per dollar spent on a wellness program.

To get the most out of their wellness programs, many turn to companies like Ryan's, which consult businesses on how to structure them. Others get assistance from their health insurers.

But what might work for one group of employees might not work for another.

"Gym memberships (are) ... not the kind of thing that work for everybody," Ryan said.

So, the employer will ask employees for areas of interest.

At Whitinsville-based UniBank, human resources staffer Eileen Messier got more than she expected when she emailed employees last month about interest in joining a wellness committee. Twenty indicated their interest, and the group developed a yearlong strategy, focusing on a different health topic each month.

A Weight Watchers program, CPR and first aid classes, a seminar on stress management and healthy recipes on the company's Web portal will be initially adopted.

Messier said she thinks bringing health screenings and clinics to the workers will make people more inclined to participate in the program.

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