December 4, 2017

Column: Wellness boosts business as well as employees

When's the last time you heard of a small business in Massachusetts cutting its annual health insurance costs by 7.5 percent? Never? Well read on, because it happened this year at a machine shop in Leominster.

F&M Tool and Die is a well-established fabricator of injection molds for the plastics industry. The company has 22 full-time employees and had seen health insurance costs rise dramatically in recent years.

Offering a good health insurance plan is important to F&M's president and owner, Michael Gasbarro. It's vital for employee morale, recruitment and retention, so managing costs is a priority. That's why I suggested F&M enroll in the Healthy Actions program offered by their carrier, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts.

"For my business, this is huge," Gasbarro said. "It's important for the bottom line, but more importantly, it helps our folks stay healthy."

Cash for doctor visits

Many insurance carriers have some limited forms of wellness programs, but the key attribute of Healthy Actions, in my view, is that it aligns significant financial incentives for both the employer and employees to take concrete actions that can improve health.

First and foremost, the program prompts employees to see their primary care physician for a physical. Employees go for an exam and if their results are within normal guidelines, they get a $300 gift card. If an employee has a medical issue to address, like high blood pressure or high cholesterol, they develop a treatment plan and they still get a $100 gift card for taking the initiative to get a physical. If they show improvement at a second exam later that year, they can earn an additional $200 gift card.

The upside for the business is tied to the number of employees who participate, so success takes a commitment from the owner and senior management, both on the administrative side, and in terms of personal leadership. Without genuine advocacy, getting the needed participation from employees could be tough and that will limit any potential premium savings.

When it all works, however, the benefits are substantial. Ultimately, over 80 percent of F&M's eligible employees participated in the program and that qualified the company to earn the maximum rebate—a 7.5 percent reduction of its annual health insurance premium.

In addition to the Healthy Actions program, this year we worked with F&M to run its first on-site health and wellness fair. That morning the staff had training on good posture, stretching and safe-lifting practices to help prevent injuries. There were experts on hand to do spinal screenings, seated massage, talk about nutrition and how to avoid Lyme disease.

The most effective tool

This example should be a reminder that as healthcare reform is batted around in Washington D.C. and on Beacon Hill, it's important to keep wellness incentives in place, especially for small businesses and their employees. Keeping people healthy should be a universal goal.

Having worked with small and mid-size companies for more than 25 years, I have seen the struggles business owners face as premiums rise. Too often they just throw up their hands in frustration, saying there is nothing they can do to control their insurance costs, because they don't have the scale or flexibility that larger companies do to negotiate rates. The truth, however, is there are steps small businesses can take to make a difference. Promoting wellness is perhaps the most effective tool we have to help both employees and business owners.

Vanessa Costa is principal and co-founder of Worcester-based Advantage Benefits Group, an employee benefits management firm.

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