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Employers shift focus to preventing obesity

WICHITA, Kan. - The seven most common chronic diseases - six of which can be caused or worsened by obesity - are costing employers $1.1 trillion in lost productivity, a recent study says.

WICHITA, Kan. - The seven most common chronic diseases - six of which can be caused or worsened by obesity - are costing employers $1.1 trillion in lost productivity, a recent study says.

The Milken Institute, an economic think tank, released its research last month showing that these common diseases - including diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure - have an annual economic impact in the U.S. of $1.3 trillion.

The kicker is that much of the cost is avoidable, researchers say. Because employers supply most of the nation's health benefits, the onus likely will fall on them to improve the health of their employees.

"Among the avoidable risk factors is obesity, which happens to be the fastest-growing risk factor in any of the ones we profiled in our study," said Kevin Klowden, a managing economist with Milken.

A 2003 study found obesity and overweight conditions contribute as much as $93 billion to the nation's annual medical bill.


"Obesity is clearly an issue for employers," said Wichita wellness and prevention expert James Early. He is medical director of Solutions for Life in partnership with Via Christi Regional Medical Center and director of clinical preventive medicine for the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita.

"It's a problem that's not going away ... and employers are having to find ways to help rein in those costs. Many are starting with a prevention and wellness policy," he said.

"It's not just about (discounted) gym passes anymore. It's much more complex."

Last year, employers nationwide absorbed premium increases ranging from 8.3 percent to 9.6 percent among the most popular health plans, according to a health plan survey by United Benefit Advisors, an association of independent brokers.

This year, employers projected they will see increases ranging from 11.4 percent to more than 12 percent, a jump that could cripple some businesses already struggling to maintain viable employee benefits.

Employers are looking for answers.

Many say they already have overburdened their employees by shifting costs to them through everything from high-deductible health plans to higher co-pays and out-of-pocket limits.

That's why employers are intrigued by the potential savings from in-house wellness programs.


"There's a chance it could help keep costs down, so it's worth exploring," said Sheryl Wohlford, president and co-owner of Automation Plus, a Wichita manufacturing firm with 15 employees.

The company saw a 7 percent premium hike this year and is always looking for ways to afford good health benefits for its employees, Wohlford said.

"There's such a focus on health and wellness and having the best workplace you can provide, so that just may become a regular benefit in the future," she said.

With costs relating to health and productivity accounting for at least 20 percent of their payrolls, employers have a significant opportunity to influence their bottom lines, industry experts said.

These wellness programs are designed to provide employees with tools to improve their health and lifestyles and address everything from smoking to obesity.

The more sophisticated wellness programs analyze employee health profiles and claims and help an employer focus on problems areas.

Some companies have created proprietary tools that calculate returns on investment in their employee wellness programs.

Many employers have begun penalizing unhealthy behaviors among employees - such as charging higher premiums to employees who smoke.


But many employers also are offering financial incentives and rewards for healthy lifestyles, and some of that means tackling obesity and the risk factors the condition creates.

Cessna Aircraft Co. is celebrating its first full year with a comprehensive wellness program that offers a financial incentive to employees who complete a health risk assessment and get a physical and blood screening.

It has gone so well, the company is experiencing a 70 percent participation rate, said Jim Walters, senior vice president for human resources.

"We're not going to attack or address obesity directly ... but in this first year, we're really trying to get our employees focused on paying attention to their well-being, their health," he said.

"We're hearing anecdotally that people are discovering the onset of diabetes and other potentially serious diseases they otherwise would not have discovered."

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