Council passes on wellness program for city employees

Published 9:59 am Friday, October 5, 2012

Bainbridge City Manager Chris Hobby made his best case for an enhanced wellness program for city employees, but the City Council—which had already passed on it once—chose not to take action.

At the council’s previous meeting on Sept. 18, Hobby had presented a proposal to enter an annual contract with Community Health Network, which would provide regular one-on-one counseling sessions for city employees identified as being at high risk to have health problems. The goal of the program, which would cost approximately $65,000 per year, would be to improve employees’ overall health and prevent costly insurance claims.

Hobby, who noted that the city’s annual health care costs were equal to 23 percent of its employees’ total salaries, said he believed rising claims costs were unsustainable.

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The city had $1.8 million in total claims last year and spent $1.3 million on picking up its share of the claims tab (up to $55,000 per employee), plus premium costs.

Hobby noted that citywide, employees had used 4,870 hours in sick time during the city’s previous fiscal year.

“Multiple studies have shown that this type of wellness program, which focuses on prevention rather than clinical measures, is the only program that works,” Hobby said.

Jackie Horne, the director of operations for CHN, said that the company’s track record was that clients normally saved 10 percent on their overall health costs each year going forward. For the City of Bainbridge, that would potentially mean a savings of $167,000 a year on health insurance claims.

Some of the counseling topics employees would be able to choose from include weight loss, tobacco cessation, blood pressure and heart rate and effective stress management, said Susan Nelson, a CHN employee who is currently working with Lee County, Ga., employees. City employees would be counseled individually at their workplace, on the clock, in 30 minute sessions. Any employee could attend counseling sessions, although employees at higher risk levels would be encouraged to attend counseling more frequently.

Other activities included in the wellness program would include “Lunch and Learn” seminars, fun competitions and online resources.

After the presentations were over, Councilwoman Roslyn Palmer—who had led opposition to the proposal the first time—said that while she had a better understanding of how a wellness program could benefit employees, she still had concerns.

She said city officials should research similar programs offered by other companies and reiterated that City of Bainbridge employees should be polled on whether they would participate in a wellness program if offered. She also believed it would be prudent to follow the results of the Decatur County Board of Education’s recently adopted wellness program.

At the previous meeting, Palmer had suggested that a wellness program could be put together using local health and fitness experts.

Councilwoman Bench, who is also a member of the Memorial Hospital Authority, said she had asked Memorial CEO Billy Walker to write a letter to the council. The letter essentially stated the hospital did not currently have the resources to offer a similar program.

“Primarily, because the hospital doesn’t currently employ health counselors,” Bench elaborated after the meeting. “I understand Mr. Walker is looking into whether the hospital could provide a wellness program for both consumers and its own employees in the future.”

High-risk employees would be referred by counselors to local primary care physicians, according to the city manager.

After the meeting, Councilwoman Bench—who had made an unsuccessful motion to acquire CHN’s services at the Sept. 18 meeting—said she did not make the same motion Tuesday night because she felt it would have been defeated again. However, she said she will ask for wellness programs to be discussed at the council’s annual retreat next spring.