Businesses Help Workers to Get in Shape

The Associated Press
Friday, June 29, 2007; 1:11 AM

CHICAGO -- A burgeoning industry of wellness advisers, counselors and consultants is booming as corporate America tries to increase productivity and control insurance costs by helping its employees get healthy and shed pounds.

The change is fueled by well-meaning, cost-conscious executives who are looking for ways to trim bottom lines along with waist lines.

"The truth is CEOs are the ones that have to address it," said Mike Huckabee, the Republican presidential candidate and former governor of Arkansas who created a wellness program for state employees after losing more 100 pounds.

And they are.

About 53 percent of large employers offered health risk assessments for their staff last year _ up from 35 percent in 2004, according to a survey by Mercer Human Resource Consulting.

The prevalence of corporate-sponsored disease management, nurse advice lines and other health-related programs is also climbing as companies find they can no longer trim extra savings out of health insurance policies.

"Employers have spent a lot of time tweaking those, and they haven't spent a lot of time getting a consumer engaged," said Tami Collin, a Mercer consultant who focuses on health and productivity management. "You'll see plan designs that are really starting to get engaged and motivated."

The change is driven by cost.

A study published in April by a group of Duke University researchers showed obese employees had higher rates of workers' compensation claims, more lost work days and costlier medical bills than their trim co-workers.

Frustrated by health insurance costs that were growing more than 10 percent a year, Ohio State University launched a massive wellness program last year with the hope of cutting medical expenses. Organizers hope the initiative, which offers gift certificates and other prizes, will help the school save $30 million over the next five years, program spokeswoman Kim Schuette said.

While wellness programs once offered counseling or education to only the sickest workers, they're now preaching prevention and more cohesive services that address a range of issues.

"Educating me is one thing. Giving me something that will help me move forward is another," said Kenneth Mitchell, vice president for health and productivity at Chattanooga, Tenn.-based Unum Group, the nation's largest disability insurer. "There's a trend to become more actively engaged and more focused in helping people."

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