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October 16, 2017 Healthy savings

Businesses save on insurance by keeping employees healthy

Courtesy Employees at F&M Tool and Die receive information on healthy lifestyles, part of the $300 they can receive for hitting certain wellness metrics.

Wellness benefits in the workplace are going beyond lunchtime yoga classes and healthy snacks in the breakroom, as more small businesses are using programs to control their insurance costs.

With about 20 employees, Michael Gasbarro's F&M Tool and Die – which makes injection molds for the plastics industry – has little leverage in negotiating health insurance premium rates with insurers. But encouraging wellness among his workforce was one way Gasbarro, who owns the company, could manage insurance costs.

About three years ago, F&M Tool and Die became of the early adopters of the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts' Healthy Actions program. F&M is now one of 2,000 Massachusetts companies where they and their employees receive financial incentives for participation, with dollars awarded increasing as the percentage of employees participating goes up.

The requirements are relatively simple: See a doctor for an annual physical, and the employee automatically earns a $100 gift card. If metrics, like weight, cholesterol and blood pressure, are normal, the employee receives $300. Those who need to take action to become more healthy can earn the additional $200 if the offending metric is resolved by the end of the health insurance plan year. Employee health information is not shared with the employer.

Meanwhile, the employer receives a refund on annual premium costs, based on participation rates. If less than 50 percent of employees participate, the company receives a 1.25-percent credit. That figure rises to 2.5 percent with 50- to 80-percent participation, and to 7.5 percent with 80-percent participation or higher. F&M Tool and Die is now receiving the maximum credit, with 80-percent participation.

Facing skeptics

“The first year was relatively slow. We only had about 40-percent participation,” Gasbarro said.

The skepticism among employees was to be expected, Gasbarro said. Longtime machinists didn't make it to the doctor on annual basis. But once word spread among the tight-knit group some were receiving $300 after seeing the doctor, the program started to take off.

Gasbarro said he's used the premiums savings to keep employee contribution costs level, as competitors have had to raise employee premium costs as the cost of health insurance rises. He's purchased two standing workstations for employees who spend much of their day at desk, and added other wellness perks, like offering chiropractic posture screenings and massages during the workday.

In addition to lowering costs and boosting morale, F&M employees are getting healthier. Gasbarro said workers have gotten control over blood sugar, or lost weight.

Vanessa Costa principal of Advantage Benefits Group Inc. in Worcester, referred Gasbarro, her client, to the Healthy Actions program. She said she's seen a culture change at the company and others that have signed on.

“The wellness aspect has changed things, I think, for a lot of these small businesses,” Costa said, noting that small companies never get good news when plan renewal season arrives.

While larger organizations have ability to negotiate with insurers, the rates are inflexible for small businesses. Offering wellness incentives like those offered by Healthy Actions is one way for small companies to gain some control, but programs are limited. In fact, Healthy Actions is the only one Costa has come across offering Massachusetts employers incentives. Other insurers offer modest wellness incentives, she said, but only to employees.

Embracing wellness

Whether an emphasis on workplace wellness will lead more health insurers to design wellness programs that reward employers remains to be seen. But Karen Mastrianni, senior director of product development and management at Blue Cross – the state's largest insurer – said the program is quickly gaining traction. Enrollment is increasing by about 20 percent annually.

Healthy Actions launched in 2012, and with healthcare reform coming to a head and impacting rates, the environment was ripe for it, Mastrianni said. With just under 2,000 companies enrolled statewide, Mastrianni said there's a lot of room to grow. With about 18,000 companies eligible, the sweet spot, she said, are companies with between 10 and 99 employees.

“It may not, at first blush, look like great participation, but it actually is,” Mastrianni said. “It takes time to build that understanding ... to drive adoption and engagement in this program.”

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