Michigan town confronts higher health care costs with wellness program

Detroit Free PressNovember 2, 2013 

One year ago, 30 city workers in Ferndale, Mich., began to change their lives ounce by ounce.

Today, they are 1,0521/2 pounds lighter, and they’re saving the city big bucks — an estimated $131,000 this year alone — in health care costs.

City Clerk Cherilynn Brown dropped 17 pounds and no longer has knee pain that kept her from doing the things she loves. Now that she’s at her goal weight, she was able to go biking pain-free with her son on a recent vacation.

Ferndale Police detective John Thul lost almost 60 pounds, and doesn’t worry that he’s going to have a stroke or aneurysm because of unmanageably high blood pressure.

“I work out about an hour and a half every day. I am actually stronger now and fitter now than when I went to the police academy,” he said.

Increasingly, employers are turning to wellness programs like the City of Ferndale’s to boost the health of their workers, reduce obesity and conditions brought on by a sedentary lifestyle, hoping the efforts will lower the ever-rising cost of their health care premiums, said Caroline Richardson, a researcher and associate professor in the department of family medicine at the University of Michigan.

Jenny Longthorne, the city’s human resources director, hoped that by starting a health initiative for city workers and their dependents, she could shave some costs from rising insurance expenses.

“In union negotiations, we’ve kind of hit a plateau with our medical plan. We’ve made some changes to it and employees are like, ‘OK, how much more can you possibly do?’ And so we agreed that we wouldn’t make changes. But in lieu of that, we still had to see some savings of some kind,” Longthorne said. “So we thought we might be able to do it in wellness on the back end, and assume some savings. We thought wellness would be a good way to start.”

Wellness efforts include weight-loss programs, discounts on gym memberships and asking employees to upload data from a pedometer to a computer to track how many steps they take each day.

“There’s a cultural shift going on where people are being asked to take responsibility for their health and take on some of the cost burden. There are issues around ethics that are just beginning to be explored with these programs, and there are protections within the law,” Richardson said.

“There are a number of things we have to think about when we consider these broad, sweeping changes in health care across the country,” she said. “The burden of these chronic conditions associated with obesity, a sedentary lifestyle and a poor diet is really making a big impact on health care costs and morbidity.”

Cecile Thompson, an accountant for Ferndale, shed 99 pounds — going from a size 20 to a size 12. She doesn’t have to shop in plus-size stores anymore to find clothes that fit.

Although she looks like a different person compared with photos from a year ago, it’s arguably Cecile’s husband, Bob Thompson, who is most transformed.

At 279 pounds, he was on oxygen and was recovering from two prior heart attacks and a stroke when he signed up for the city-sponsored Weight Watchers at Work program in September 2012.

Now he’s 34 pounds lighter and no longer needs an oxygen tank to breathe. He doesn’t need as much blood pressure medication, and is hopeful he can drop his cholesterol medicine in the near future.

“I was ready to give up; I was,” said Bob Thompson, 56. “I thought it was imminent; put me 6 feet under.

“But now I have a whole new outlook on life. ... I never thought I’d get my wedding ring back on. It was five years that darn thing sat on my key ring, and I’ve got it on now. You can’t have another wedding ring. There’s only the one you get married in.

“I’m wearing size 36 pants, no more stretch pants. I’m happy. I am.”

How the program works

 • In Ferndale, city workers and dependents could sign up for Weight Watchers at Work program starting in September 2012, and the $150 cost was reimbursed by the city as long as they attended at least 10 of the 12 meetings in each session.

 • After two 12-week sessions, the program was such a hit that the city opted to pay outright for the classes, said Jenny Longthorne, the city’s human resources director. The city has spent about $9,000 for its employees to take part in the program in the past year.

 • In a city survey of employees who signed up for the program, 88 percent reported that relatives also have made positive changes, losing weight, eating more healthfully and exercising more.

 • In all, 300 workplaces in Michigan now offer at-work Weight Watchers programs, and about 50 to 75 more are about to get started later this month, said Laurie Humphries, a spokeswoman for the WW Group. Of them, about 40 percent — a growing number — subsidize some or all of the cost of the program for employees.

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