Well, Well, Well

Employee health programs can be money savers

Last August, Melanie Mayes learned something shocking about herself: "I was a heart attack waiting to happen." At a company-sponsored wellness exam, Mayes, a 25-year-old administrative assistant at ARAG Group, a Des Moines insurer, discovered that her cholesterol level was dangerously high. So Mayes started walking and swimming. She has shed 15 pounds and feels healthier than ever.

For entrepreneurs seeking to control health-care costs, employees like Mayes, who may be neglecting their health, can become big problems. After all, managed-care companies set premiums based on an entire group's claims history. Just one cardiac case can raise your costs for years.

That's why a wellness program makes sense. At ARAG Group, 80 employees receive free annual health screenings at a local hospital. The cost: $8,000 a year, and worth every cent, says President James R. Brennan. Since establishing the program two years ago, ARAG's health-care costs have risen by 7%--vs. nearly 10% for all small businesses. How much of the credit goes to wellness? Brennan isn't sure. But he figures that if he's prevented one heart attack, it's money well spent.

If your health plan doesn't cover health assessments, a local hospital can administer exams for $10 to $40 a head. The nonprofit Wellness Councils of America (www.welcoa.org) can help you design a program and direct you to regional resources and vendors. Wellness also often results in a drop in absenteeism and turnover. Last year, ARAG's turnover was just 9%, about half the industry average. And with less anxiety about runaway medical costs, perhaps your own heart rate will slow down.

By Joshua Kendall

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