Promoting workers’ health holds down costs

Mike DeDoncker

Someone brought in doughnuts when Haldex Hydraulics Corp. celebrated a safety milestone a few weeks ago.

The employees were disappointed.

“I walked by the table and there weren’t too many doughnuts gone,” said Chrystine Harned, benefits administrator and employee programs manager for Haldex’s plant. “People were actually upset that it was doughnuts and not something more healthy.”

The employees’ reaction was testament to a company-sponsored wellness program that focuses on employee health improvements through a system of prevention, support and rewards to hold down health-insurance costs. While health-insurance premiums have risen over the past several years, Harned said Haldex’s premiums have stayed level.

She said the company, which has approximately 400 workers in Rockford and another 140 in Statesville, N.C., also was able to forego raising employee contributions to the premiums this year.

“From my perspective, it’s great to stand up in front of everybody and say we’re offering these new programs, we’re doing these new things and on the other side of it we don’t have to increase your health premiums because our claims are staying steady,” Harned said. “From their perspective, there’s no more coming out of their paycheck.”

Harned said it was hard to put a dollar figure on the financial impact for the company, but said average health plan costs per employee for 2008 were about seven percent lower than they were in 2003.

Second-shift members of the employee health and wellness committee Laura Brown and Jacqueline Charles said they were quick to support the program.

“This is something that’s very proactive. It’s nice to work for a company that takes a direct interest in your health,” Charles said.

The prevention portion of Haldex’s plan begins with a health-risk assessment that is mandatory for anyone who wants to participate in the company’s health-insurance program.

Haldex contracts with Wellness, Inc., to provide the screenings that included a health-risk assessment questionnaire; blood pressure check; height, weight and body mass index measurements, and a blood draw for 35 different tests, including a complete blood count and cholesterol analysis.

“The people know what their cholesterol is, they know what their LDL (low-density lipoprotein) and HDL (high-density lipoprotein) levels are. They know what their numbers are and they can, then, share them with their doctors to, hopefully, get on medication if they need it or whatever,” Harned said.

Support and rewards have come in the form of a condition management program that helps employees manage their health in a preventive manner rather than allowing the onset of full-fledged medical conditions and in the form of competitions, some fashioned after popular television shows.

The winning team in a “Biggest Loser” competition split an $808 first prize and the winners in an “Amazing Race” walking competition received $100 apiece. Other programs, such as Lunch ‘n Learn sessions to give employees healthy eating tips and after-shift group workouts, led by personal trainers Wes Jones and Niki Bryant of Studio 360 dovetail into competitions such as the National Fitness Day FUNOLYMPICS in which employees flipped tractor tires or demonstrated their ability to hold a plank or squat strength-training position.

“I just try to make it as fun as possible,” Harned said, “so that we can get people to participate and, hopefully, they’ll start to see the benefits of eating better, losing some weight and just feeling better.”

Jones, who tries to use his own experiences to help motivate employees, said changes are taking hold.  

“When we first started doing this,” Jones said, “you would see people eating chips and there was always cake and cookies sitting out. People were kind of hiding what they were eating when I walked through.

“Now, there’s people eating tuna, and canned chicken and salads and there’s healthy stuff sitting out. Instead of people hiding when I walk by, they’re proud and it’s, ‘Hey look what I’m having.’ The energy level has been raised so much.”

Anne Morton, senior account executive for North Shore Benefits Group, said programs to control health insurance through early intervention is a growing trend.

“We’re moving away from an entitlement approach to health insurance,” Morton said, “and what we’re really trying to do now is say we’re all in this together. We were able to deliver no increase in their health-care payments for their employees this year and that’s huge, and the reason they’re doing that is because they have this three-step program of prevention, support and reward.

“It’s been fun for me as a consultant to see how much buy-in there’s been and how much participation.”

Mindee Zis, of third-party administrator Allied Benefit Systems, which has worked with Haldex the past several years, said Allied encourages company programs to help keep employees healthy.

“In the long term, if people are healthier that means fewer illnesses and less claims, which means lower plan costs,” Zis said.

“So, year after year for the last five years, Haldex Hydraulics’ increase to their plan costs has been five percent, on average, or less while the national average has been 12 to 17 percent over the past five years. We feel very strongly that their dedication to health and wellness programs and helping people to change their lifestyle behaviors is the absolute direct reason for managing those costs and keeping them down.”

Mike DeDoncker can be reached at (815) 987-1382 or