The Urban County Council gave preliminary approval Thursday night to a city-sponsored wellness center for city employees, their dependents and retirees.
Use of the wellness center would be voluntary, free and available to employees in addition to their regular health insurance benefits, said Jamie Emmons, Mayor Jim Gray's chief of staff.
Open enrollment for the city's new health benefit plan begins Nov. 7.
The wellness center, which will cost $1.3 million to open, is expected to pay for itself the first year and generate an additional $500,000 in health care savings, said Jerry Ford, CEO of Marathon Health. Marathon Health won the city contract to equip, staff and operate the center.
It will be staffed with one doctor, two nurse practition ers, a registered nurse, two medical assistants and a receptionist. Several possible locations are under consideration.
If approved on final reading, the center should be open by the end of January, and an on-site pharmacy is expected to be operational in March.
The council will hold a special meeting at 3 p.m. Tuesday to hear from the human resources director of the city of Chattanooga about the success of its wellness center and to get more details about the one proposed for Lexington. The council then will give a second reading to a resolution establishing a wellness center here.
Services expected to be available in the center include physical exams, management of chronic diseases such as diabetes and osteoporosis, and urgent care. An important component will be preventive care.
Staff will be trained to do lifestyle and risk-reduction coaching in a variety of areas, including weight management, high cholesterol, depression and smoking cessation.
The center will provide occupational health services including annual physicals for police and firefighters; drug testing; and treatment of work-related injuries, which the city now pays for.
The city started discussing a wellness center in August after a presentation by Benefit Insurance Marketing, a consulting team hired to look at the city's health insurance plan.
The city is spending $30 million in fiscal year 2011 for health care and has budgeted $33 million in 2012. But just weeks after Gray was elected last year, he learned that city health care costs would exceed the $33 million by $12 million.
The $1.3 million needed to open the wellness center will come from anticipated savings in reduced health claims, Emmons said during an afternoon council briefing.
Presently, 85 percent of the 6,400 employees, dependents and retirees are on the city's platinum health plan with no deductibles. In the upcoming year, a platinum plan will be offered, "but it will cost a heck of a lot of money," reflecting the true costs of the insurance, Emmons said.
Several city employees attended the afternoon briefing and asked how the city planned to get employees to buy into using the wellness center on a regular basis.
An employee education plan is being developed, said Richard Moloney, the city's chief administrative officer. Gray is involved in devising the plan and informing employees of their options.
Evelyn Bologna, a parks and recreation employee, attended Thursday's briefing. "I think the concept is very good," she said afterward.
Bologna was impressed that an emphasis of the center staff would be to develop "trust and a relationship with each patient. It's not like seeing a different physician every time you go."
In a population of about 6,000 people — the number now on the city's health insurance plan — 20 percent, statistically, are considered high risk, driving 80 percent of health care costs. Marathon representative David Demers said its goal was "to engage 70 percent of the high-risk group" to make healthier lifestyle choices. Reducing the health care costs of the high-risk group of employees by 5 percent to 10 percent should save the city $2 million to $5 million a year.
In addition, the city should save money because Benefit Insurance Marketing, the consultant, negotiated lower administrative costs with Humana. The city will use Humana as its third-party administrator.