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Wellness program helps McLean Co. employees
Wellness program helps McLean Co. employees

BLOOMINGTON - A carrot - not a stick - is getting some people to exercise, eat healthy and control rising health insurance premiums. That's a lesson learned at McLean County Government. Administrators say the McLean County Employee Wellness Program is among reasons premium increases for employees on the PPO (preferred provider organization) plan have increased an average of 4.25 percent in each of the past five years. "That is substantially below what most group plans have experienced," assistant county administrator Terry Lindberg said.

While plan design changes and natural employee turnover also helped to control premium increases, "the wellness program is a part of this, unquestionably," Lindberg said.

A county employee who participates in the wellness program agreed.

"When people are involved in a wellness program, they become more health conscious and have fewer health problems, which should eventually mean lower rates," said Martha Hollis, a county employee for 15 years. "And it's just more fun and you tend to stick with it if other people are doing it with you."

The program started as a health fair in the 1990s. About 150 county employees attended and 95 had health screenings that first year, said Jan Morris, McLean County Health Department health promotion program planner.

During the next few years, the health fair grew into a year-long wellness effort that included walking programs, nutrition programs, stop smoking programs, cooking classes, an on-site Weight Watchers class, a Pilates class, and lunch and learn presentations on everything from yoga, to breast health awareness, to osteoporosis. In addition, the county developed an Intranet wellness site with tips and articles.

Confidential health screenings were offered to employees.

Participation in the programs is voluntary.

"We are not the wellness Gestapo," said Bob Keller, health department director. "We want employees to change their behavior on their own. But we will motivate them, offer them incentives and make it easier for them."

Last year, 425 of 750 county employees participated in at least one wellness program and 232 underwent screenings, Morris said.

While results of the screenings are known only by each employee and his or her doctor, Morris said several people began healthy eating and exercise programs because of poor screening results.

The cost of screenings and most of the classes is covered by the county. Keller said the county spent $18,000 last year. But the expenditure is worthwhile when one considers that some medical procedures that are being avoided cost tens of thousands of dollars.

"The employees feel good about it," Keller said. "They see the programs as a benefit, they enjoy participating and it's a morale booster.

"The employer has an enlightened self-interest. If we pay now and help keep our employees healthy, we'll impact our own bottom line."

Hollis, 59, of Normal, is a wife, mother, grandmother and secretary to Circuit Judge Scott Drazewski.

She decided last June she needed to lose weight before she began to have health problems and was convinced by friend Sandy Parker, McLean County circuit clerk, to join Weight Watchers offered through the wellness program.

"I want to see my grandchildren grow up," she said.

Hollis switched from a fast-food breakfast to juice and a cereal bar, began eating Weight Watchers and Lean Cuisine lunches, began drinking more water, and learned to eat light and healthy at restaurants without going hungry.

Twice a day, she takes a break to walk a half-mile around the Law & Justice Center. On most evenings, she walks about 1½ miles on her treadmill at home and is working up to three miles.

She's lost 60 pounds and wants to lose another 40.

"I feel way better. I can go up and down the stairs and my legs don't ache. I have more energy than I've had in five or six years. I feel younger even though the big number (age 60) is looming."

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