Anyone who has been in the workforce for even a short time is familiar with sick leave and health insurance.
For employees they're a safety net that catches them before they lose their jobs or their savings because of illness. For employers they're expenses that drive up the cost of doing business.
Two recent news stories reveal efforts to rethink the employer's role, switching to encouraging wellness rather than dealing with sickness after the fact.
One told about state government offices that let employees exercise during working hours. The other outlined a proposal for a wellness center for city employees and retirees that's a keystone in the report of a consultant hired to help Lexington's local government figure out how to trim health care costs.
If these programs were only about helping employees feel better during stressful times, they'd have to be put on the back burner until tax revenues justify "extras."
That's not the case.
City health care costs, now at $30 million, have been rising about 8 percent a year. Based on experience in other cities, the consultant figures a wellness center could cut that to 2 percent or possibly even zero. Chattanooga established a wellness center several years ago and has realized about $3 million in annual savings, according to news accounts. That center, and the one suggested for Lexington, include a free clinic and reduced-price pharmacy. The idea is to promote wellness, disease prevention and better management of chronic conditions before they become costly medical emergencies.
The state agencies promoting wellness are following a less aggressive but still commendable approach by allowing employees to exercise during working hours, with the approval of their supervisors. One employee said exercise has helped her manage back pain and fibromyalgia so well that she hasn't seen a doctor for the conditions for a year. A net gain for her, the state health care plan and her agency since she's been away less for doctor visits.
Three researchers at Harvard University recently published their findings from a survey of the many studies on the costs and benefits of wellness programs. They concluded that "medical costs fall by about $3.27 for every dollar spent on wellness programs and that absenteeism costs fall by about $2.73 for every dollar spent."
That's great but a couple of points might make it even greater. One, the authors note, is that wellness programs may be more costly in their early years with start-up expenses related to equipping, staffing and promoting the program while the benefits can be extremely long-term. Another, and this is particularly important in Kentucky, is that these programs can be tailored to focus on conditions such as obesity and smoking, the two top causes of preventable death in the United States that are particular health scourges in Kentucky.
State offices deserve praise for encouraging employees to lead healthier lifestyles.
City leaders should look very carefully at the proposal for a wellness center. It has the potential to save money for both the city and its employees while improving their quality of life.