Wellness programs for workers can tip scales against obesity

Ky. employers can help tip scales with wellness programs for workers

October 8, 2012 

Deb Moessner is president of Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Kentucky.

  • At issue: Sept. 25 Herald-Leader article: "A fatter future for our kids? New obesity predictions should disturb us all"

We Kentuckians sure are a competitive bunch. After all, we live in a state that is home to some of the top college athletic programs in the nation. We don't like to lose.

But when it comes to obesity levels in our state, we have to face it: We're losing badly.

We were reminded of this unpleasant fact again in recent weeks when the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released a report that shows Kentucky has the 10th-highest obesity rate in the country. We've been at the bottom of this particular health measure for several years now.

Not only does obesity lead to chronic illness and diminished quality of life, it takes a severe financial toll on all of us.

Experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have estimated that medical-related costs of obesity might be as high as $147 billion a year, or roughly 9 percent of all medical expenditures.

And an obese person costs an average of $1,400 more in medical expenses a year than someone who is at a healthy weight.

Here's the good news: Obesity is preventable.

Experts tell us that about 85 percent of health conditions are self-inflicted and can be prevented by eating better, exercising more and quitting smoking.

It sounds easy, but we know better. If this were easy, the collective wisdom of Kentucky would have solved the obesity problem a long time ago.

But it's time we start preventing. One recent study predicts that obesity could affect 42 percent of Americans by 2030. If we don't address this problem, costs will rise out of sight for employers, who provide about 168 million Americans with health insurance; for the state's Medicaid program, which provides health care access to 745,000 Kentuckians on an already cash-strapped budget; and literally for anybody who pays a health insurance premium, co-pay or co-insurance.

When facing big problems, sometimes it's best to start small. It's not a cure-all, but maybe a simple workplace wellness program like the one we introduced at Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield a few years ago might be adopted by other businesses.

We have an annual contest known as the Fitness Challenge. It's a program that encourages our 1,100 Kentucky employees to be physically active and commit to 30 minutes of cardiovascular or strength training most days of the week for 10 weeks.

This year, more than 500 of our employees ramped up and amped up their workouts and made physical activity a regular part of their day. We started small, and who knows, maybe some of them will continue to use our on-site fitness centers and health improvement programs throughout the year. And maybe exercise will become a healthy habit for a lifetime.

During 30 years in the health insurance industry, I've learned that when employers commit to helping their employees improve their health, it not only increases employee productivity and morale, it decreases health care costs for the employer and the employee. And there's a domino effect. Wellness is contagious. It's what Anthem calls the health footprint; when I take better care of myself, the people I come into contact with are more likely to do the same.

Changing behavior is not easy. But Kentucky's employer community has to lead by example. Whether it's providing a simple workplace wellness program, a nurse hot line, nutrition counseling, health screenings, smoking cessation programs or discounts to fitness centers, businesses across the state must work in partnership to improve Kentuckians' health and lower their health care costs. The state's physical — and fiscal — health is at stake.

Ben Franklin wasn't speaking about Kentucky's high obesity rate, but he was right: "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

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