ATLANTA -- Georgia taxpayers may one day benefit from a leaner government, not just due to tight budgets but also from incentives that encourage state workers to slim down and get healthy.
Considering taxpayers annually pony up $3 billion to provide health insurance for 660,000 employees, teachers, retirees and their children, even a small percentage savings amounts to a lot of money. So, the Department of Community Health that runs the State Health Benefit Plan started a wellness program last year to nudge members of the plan to shape up.
So far, half signed on, making it what the department claims is the largest, employer-based wellness program in the nation. In exchange for discounts on premiums and slightly lower co-payment requirements, they agreed to complete an online questionnaire and have a doctor screen them for blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and obesity.
“One of the positive aspects of this requirement is that some of our members who had not been to a physician in years, went to a physician for the screening as part of their annual physical,” said Trudie Nacin, director of the health plan. “Any of these numbers can be rolled back to the testimonials of how this has changed their lifestyles by knowing their numbers and their journey to lose weight or improve those numbers.”
She delivered the status last week in a presentation to the department’s board.
“Congratulations. Unbelievable to have 50 percent, basically, participation in the plan,” said Chairman Ross Mason.
Research shows that healthier employees not only have fewer expenses for medical claims but they are also more productive, said Patricia Ketsche, associate professor of the Institute of Health Administration at Georgia State University.
The financial benefits aren’t instant, she notes, but they are significant even if some of the workers don’t stick to their best intentions.
“The cost savings, to the extent they do accrue, they accrue over the long term,” she said. “...If 20 people lose weight and 15 regain it, you still have a long-term benefit from the five that kept it off.”
There’s room for improvement. The screenings showed 17 percent have high blood pressure, 22 percent too much cholesterol, 18 percent elevated blood sugar and 41 percent are seriously overweight. That compares to 34 percent of Georgians overall who are obese, but the percentage in the plan with diabetes -- 7 percent -- is slightly lower than the 7.8 percent in the U.S. population.
In the second year of the plan, the workers and their spouses will have to show they are taking steps to improve. If they don’t at least try, they’ll lose their discounts.