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Encouraging wellness without penalizing employees

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    John Sarno
    John Sarno - (NJBIZ File)

    The federal government this week issued final rules governing workplace wellness programs, and officials said they want to encourage programs that seek to reduce chronic illness while also protecting workers from having their benefits reduced based on their health status.

    John Sarno, president of the Employers Association of New Jersey, for the past year has worked with Rutgers University and employers statewide on a workplace wellness campaign to develop an online toolkit employers can use to build healthier workplaces, with activities ranging from mid-day walking clubs to more nutritious snacks in the vending machines.

    Sarno said the final regulations from the Department of Health and Human Services could help raise the visibility of workplace wellness programs, which fall into two categories: participatory programs that are open to everyone regardless of their health, and "health-contingent wellness programs" that reward workers who hit certain health targets.

    Sarno said the new regulations increase the financial incentives. Previously, an employer could offer a 20 percent reduction in health plan premiums to employees who reach certain health targets, such as blood pressure, glucose levels or weight loss. The new regulations raise that to 30 percent overall, and to 50 percent for workers who quit smoking.

    Survey data from the Workplace Wellness Campaign found four in 10 employers with fewer than 50 on their payrolls "are doing wellness programs that might include walking clubs, elimination of junk food in the office" and seminars on health topics at lunchtime. "They do this primarily for morale and employee engagement," Sarno said, because small employers are unlikely to see a reduction in their health insurance premiums if their employees' health improves, since their claims are pooled in the small-employer insurance market.

    Among larger employee group, with 50 to 250 employees, about 60 percent offer wellness programs, mostly participatory programs.

    Sarno said the larger employee groups, with more than 250, tend to be self-insured, and "wellness has for the last couple of years been built into the self-insured plans. Nearly all self-insured plans have some wellness component."

    He said about 20 percent of large employers offer health-contingent programs aimed at changing behavior, which "is really being driven by health care costs — they are convinced that if they can get their employees to eat better, exercise and have healthier lifestyles, long-term, they will be able to reduce costs."

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    Beth Fitzgerald

    Beth Fitzgerald

    Beth Fitzgerald reports on health care, small business and higher education. She joined NJBIZ in 2008 after a 34-year career at the Star-Ledger and has been reporting on business in New Jersey since 1978. Her email is beth@njbiz.com and she is @bethfitzgerald8 on Twitter.

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