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Wellness programs may help financial health

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

March 31, 2014


If you have employer-provided health insurance, you donít have to worry about meeting the March 31 deadline to sign up for coverage through the state-based health care exchanges. But like any consumer today, you may be wondering how to lower your health care costs.

One way: Take advantage of the growing number of health and wellness programs being offered by employers ó often with financial rewards attached.

Health and wellness programs can take many forms, from weight-loss initiatives to on-site flu shots. And in 2014, nearly three-fourths of employers will offer workers a financial bonus for participating in these programs, according to a study released this year by Fidelity Investments and the National Business Group on Health. Thatís up from 57 percent five years ago.

The size of the rewards also is growing. On average, corporations plan to dole out $594 per employee for wellness incentives this year, up from $260 in 2009.

"Thereís a strong belief that these programs help drive healthier behaviors," said Robert Kennedy, health and welfare practice leader for Fidelity Benefits Consulting. But, he added, "The financial incentives are what grab peopleís attention and make them take action."

In a survey released last month by Aon Hewitt, a global human resources consulting firm, consumers named financial rewards as one of the most appealing features of wellness programs, more so than other features, such as convenience and access to personal advice.

If you havenít already investigated the type of rewards your employer offers, itís worth doing so.

Many employers will discount your monthly health insurance premium when you participate in a wellness program. Gift cards and cash also are common rewards. Or an employer may put money in a flexible spending or health savings account, which are tax-advantaged savings accounts for medical expenses.

How do you earn those financial bonuses?

In the past, simply doing a health risk assessment (essentially, a questionnaire about your health and fitness level) was enough to earn you a payout. Now, some employers are demanding more. Rewards may be tied to outcomes or the completion of more than one healthy activity during the year.

And some companies will penalize you for bad behavior. If youíre a smoker, for example, and donít participate in a smoking cessation program, you may have to pay higher insurance premiums than nonsmoking colleagues.

"Ultimately, employers want their workforce to be healthier," said Ray Baumruk, employee research leader for Aon Hewitt.

And that focus is expected to continue.

In its 2013 survey of employer health benefits, the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit health policy group, found that 35 percent of employers believe health and wellness programs are an effective strategy for controlling health care costs. Only 20 percent said the same about consumer-driven health plans, and 17 percent about making workers cover a higher percentage of their medical bills.

As a result, Baumruk believes even more companies will offer wellness programs in coming years. And the size of some of these incentives will likely rise, "at least in the short term," he said.

Other benefits also could be provided.

In its survey, Aon Hewitt found that workers younger than 30 would like to receive guidelines for healthy living, as well as a way to quickly compare health care costs. Today, only 10 percent of consumers say they have access to a cost-comparison tool, according to Aon.