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Work wellness: A real solution to mitigate increasing costs

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For the last five years, corporate wellness has come to mean a host of different things. For some, it's an article about sunscreen in the company newsletter. To others, it means offering employees gym memberships at a discount. While to others still, it is a group of employees that get together on a regular basis to walk around the parking lot at lunch.

While each of these things is good, none of them in and of themselves will result in changing the risk profile of an employee group or doing anything to effectively lower the cost of rising health care insurance. If you're a human resource professional who has implemented a corporate wellness program or is thinking of doing so, there are two questions that must be answered: Why is your company engaging in a wellness program? What is to be accomplished by the implementation of a program?

If the desire is simply to help employees become more aware of health issues and any health concerns they may have, then the voluntary, event-based activities described above may accomplish this goal.

However, if you're seeking a wellness program as a tool to manage rising health care costs, such passive programs will fall short in achieving this goal. For wellness to spawn real change that could result in lowered health care costs, it must involve the following components:

¥ Executive buy-in and support

¥ An active wellness committee

¥ Incentives

¥ Consistent, well-developed communication

¥ Accountability

¥ Measurable return on investment Years ago, Barney & Barney set out to build a different model of wellness, one that would not only assist employees in living healthier, but one that would also play a significant role in the mission of controlling health care costs.

From the get-go, we saw two big problems when employers attempted to accomplish this result.

1. Human resource professionals, while having the desire to run a wellness program, often do not have the experience, expertise, or, most important, time to implement one. In turn, many programs are constantly in a start or stop mode. A company will have a big kickoff, but six months later, no one remembers it.

We also see many employers buying programs from venders only to see 5 percent to 10 percent participation. In these cases, it is not that the program itself was not of value, but the absence of any infrastructure to communicate, promote and successfully promote change within the organization. We caution employers against spending significant amounts of money for programs that just a few employees will use. Employers are better off having high participation in a modest program than modest participation in a large program.

2. Some companies that have implemented a successful wellness program did not see the return in lowered insurance premiums. In these cases, because much of the cost of insurance is dictated by an insurance company's "trend," there was no correlation between their wellness initiatives and rising insurance costs.

It is typical that insurance renewals each year come with double-digit rate increases, even before a group's claims are considered. If this is the model, how does a wellness program combat rate increases? Without a change in how renewals are computed and credits given, there is no opportunity. Seeking to solve these core challenges, earlier this year Barney & Barney began providing a wellness solution to our clients that addresses these issues and takes wellness from a good idea to something that results in real change.

These efforts are gaining recognition in the industry as groundbreaking, and are why we have been recognized by Insurance and Risk Magazine and the Mental Health Association of America. The program is this:

1. First, Barney & Barney provides our clients a wellness coordinator; an experienced wellness professional that steers and implements our client's initiatives. The wellness coordinator provides the expertise, energy and focus that is critical to the success of a program. History has taught us that if we turn over a wellness program to our clients to run, the lifespan of that program decreases dramatically. Our wellness coordinator takes the program to the people for you.

2. The second unique component is the establishment of negotiated underwriting credits from health, life and disability. These are provided under an exclusive five-year pilot program between Barney & Barney and several insurance companies. Now, return on investment in a wellness program can be real. We can show our client specifically what a wellness program can do to lower not only claims, but the trend number that all quotes start with. As an employer or human resources professional, you shouldn't be satisfied with sitting back and accepting trend increases year after year. There is a program out there that has shown that taking a long-term wellness strategy can make a difference. There is an opportunity, through wellness and other strategies, to take control of escalating health care cost and have a positive effect on both employees' and employers' health.

Cotter is a principal at Barney & Barney LLC, one of the largest and oldest risk management and employee benefits insurance brokerages in California.

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