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Eau Claire employees' wellness activities slowing insurance costs

posted Oct. 26, 2016 12:00 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Julian Emerson. bio | email

Participation in various health-related activities, from exercise boot camps to yoga to cycling classes, is helping city government’s nearly 500 employees get in better physical condition.

But the benefits of the city’s wellness plan extend beyond improved health. The city’s health insurance costs are rising slowly, thanks to workers’ willingness to take part in wellness initiatives in exchange for the city picking up at least part of their insurance deductibles and premiums. 

On Tuesday the Eau Claire City Council approved an 18-month renewal of the city’s health insurance plan with Group Health Cooperative of Eau Claire that calls for a 1 percent premium increase effective Jan. 1. The deal extends the city’s contract through the end of next year rather than the typical one-year renewal. 

The city previously approved a 3 percent premium boost that took effect July 1. City payments for health insurance next year will total about $12.8 million. 

The city’s paying for part or all of employees’ deductibles — $1,650 annually for a single policy and $3,300 for a family plan — is a major factor in the fact that more than 95 percent of them take part in the wellness plan, officials said. Participants meet with health coaches and establish goals to become healthier, one of four wellness plan components. Employees also are eligible to have the city pay for an additional 3.3 percent of the 15 percent of their insurance premiums they are responsible for if they meet wellness guidelines. 

“The deductible portion of this is a huge deal,” said Roxanne Hinrichs, human resources specialist with the city. “That has really helped to motivate us to get healthier, which has reduced our costs.”

Workers hired by the city are pleasantly surprised to learn of the inducement, Hinrichs said.

“Our new employees who are hired are shocked,” she said. “They say ‘Are you kidding me?’ ”

Human resources director Vicki Seltun began working for the city in May. She found the ability to have the city help pay her deductible a good incentive to take part in the wellness program and get healthier. 

 “We have been able to get buy-in with this,” she said. “It is a really good incentive.”

Another key to high wellness program participation,  Seltun said, is the continued offering of different exercise programs, many of which involve teaming with other city workers. 

“We like to do this together. And we suffer as a group,” Seltun said with a laugh, alluding to physically demanding workouts.  

Successful plan

Nine years ago, after facing double-digit health insurance increases for years, then-city human resources director Dale Peters and Peter Farrow, general manager and CEO of Group Health Cooperative, decided to try something different. The duo formulated a plan that included persuading city employees to live healthier lives, thereby reducing ever-rising city health care costs. 

Neither knew whether that plan would work. Farrow said his Group Health colleagues asked him how he was going to keep from losing money on the deal.

“I didn’t have an answer for them,” Farrow said Tuesday following the City Council meeting. “I didn’t know how this was going to work. But I knew it had to. I knew we had to try something different.”

Peters and Farrow met with city workers and their families, urging them to take part in the wellness plan. City officials decided to give those employees monetary incentives, hoping they would become healthier and reduce city government’s medical costs. 

Their efforts worked. Nine years later, the percentage of city employees with high blood pressure has dropped from 17 to just over 1 percent. Farrow said without the different approach, the city’s health insurance tab for next year likely would total $17 million or $18 million instead of $12.8 million. And health maladies have been prevented.

“It is not an exaggeration to say we are saving lives,” Farrow said. 

Eau Claire County also contracts with Group Health for health insurance and will do so through at least 2018. County health insurance costs will rise 1.24 percent next year after officials had anticipated a 7 percent increase. 

County Administrator Kathryn Schauf attributed the relatively low price boost to a wellness program 93 percent of employees participate in. “Our employees have to earn those incentives,” she said of discounts wellness participants receive for their share of health insurance premiums and contributions to their health savings accounts.

• Also on Tuesday, the City Council approved an ordinance that provides increased protections for the city’s drinking water supply despite concerns those environmental safeguards may not go far enough. 

The council debated the issue for about 45 minutes and considered an amendment by Councilman Andrew Werthmann that would have prohibited new underground petroleum tanks in that area before he rescinded the measure. 

The council then approved the ordinance by a 9-1 vote, with Werthmann opposed. Councilman Tim Tewalt was absent. 

Werthmann said he plans to revisit the issue at an upcoming council meeting. 

The state Department of Natural Resources requires the ordinance before the city can add two new wells in the well field on Eau Claire’s north side. 

Leader-Telegram reporter Andrew Dowd contributed to this report. 

Contact: 715-830-5911,