Dakota County offers workers incentive to stay healthier

  • Article by: LAURIE BLAKE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 20, 2014 - 8:28 AM

This wellness program is a first for public entity in state.

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Lifetime Fitness in Lakeville, Minn.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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Dakota County, taking a cue from private-sector efforts to control health costs, will dole out about $440,000 in financial rewards to employees who score well on such health and fitness key metrics as weight, body fat, blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

While wellness programs have become increasingly common in the workplace, officials believe Dakota may be the first Minnesota county to reward employees who adopt healthier lifestyles. The hope is that savings on health claims by the county’s 1,800 employees will eventually save taxpayers money.

“We pay a lot in health care benefits,” said Dakota County Administrator Brandt Richardson. “We know the underlying factor in this is healthfulness. It’s a challenge for our society.”

The county had been facing 12 percent annual increases in health care costs, Richardson said. “You compound that, and it’s worth taking a risk.”

The results-based approach is more ambitious and costly than previous efforts. The new program will pay about 10 times as much in insurance discounts as the county paid under its previous wellness program, in the form of one-time rewards to employees who complete an online health assessment.

In addition to the financial incentives, the county will pay $264,000 to myHealthCheck, a Life Time Fitness company, to run the program.

But the county is hopeful that program will eventually pay for itself through lower health care costs.

“The goal is that it’s self sustaining” after three years, said Nancy Hohbach, the county’s director of employee relations.

To get the program started, the myHealthCheck staff measured each participating employee for cholesterol, weight, body fat, heart rate, blood pressure, flexibility, strength and other measures. Lab work followed. Results, delivered by a health coach in a private conversation, establish a score that determines who qualifies for an insurance premium reduction of $25, $35, or $45 a month. Employees then are offered discounted health club memberships, activities, classes and athletic events to help them eat well and exercise consistently.

Progress will be measured with a second round of screenings next fall, when new scores will be issued for 2015.

A health credit score

Seeing their health score and understanding why they got it and how to change it helps people improve their health, said Jeff Ridgway, director of strategy and business development for Life Time Fitness’ total health division.

“It’s like a credit score for their health — it’s motivating for them to see that number rise from year to year.”

About 900 employees of the county, the state’s third largest, took the first health screenings last August.

Dakota County employee Erin Stwora, an assistant division director who says she already exercises and eats well, said she is pleased to have the program at work. “The incentives for it are great. Who can argue with wanting to be healthy and having the organization you work for reward you for being healthy?”

But not all employees are on board with the Dakota County plan. The wellness program has not won the endorsement of the union representing about 650 employees, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which says it could unfairly penalize workers who have chronic health conditions.

Union officials said they’d be open to negotiating a results-based plan that offers incentives for such things as stopping smoking or exercising. “We would oppose a results-based plan that presumes a person can’t manage their chronic disease because they aren’t trying hard enough,” said spokeswoman Jennifer Munt.

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