Program pushes wellness for state workers

Get healthy, stay healthy is message of new plan, but surcharges, including one for smokers, opposed by union

Staff writerApril 21, 2014 

Six months after Gov. Jay Inslee’s executive order gave it a push, Washington’s new wellness plan for state workers is under way.

More than 83,000 workers have already created online accounts for the wellness program, state Health Care Authority officials said in a briefing to the Public Employees Benefits Board last week.

With the promise of a $125 cut in medical insurance deductibles next year, employees have incentives to get fit – or at least eat more vegetables, quit smoking, get 90 minutes of cardio exercise a week, join a diabetes prevention program, or enage in other healthier activities.

“We are very encouraged by the (enrollment) numbers. They are strong. They look good,” said Lou McDermott, the assistant director of the Health Care Authority who also directs the Public Employees Benefits Board program.

There is no budget savings target, but McDermott said the goal is to “improve the overall health of our members.” Longer term, the hope is that state medical costs will decline.

The board briefing says the state notified 138,562 employees of the midyear enrollments and expect about 116,527 will enroll online before June 30. Another 98,128 could declare that they are getting involved in healthy activities.

Kara Skinner, a financial analyst with the Department of Enterprise Services, signed up online and considers the incentive – which includes an extra $125 payment by the state for those who have Health Savings Accounts – “a good idea.”

“I had already done two of the three requirements for the wellness portion of it. All I had to do is a little physical activity every week. That is easy for me to incorporate in my life. It was sort of a no-brainer,” Skinner said. Other requirements include choosing a primary care doctor and completing a health assessment online.

In a related wellness program, at least 76 workers have begun a 16-week diabetes prevention program after testing showed they were pre-diabetic. Hundreds more are expected to enroll after as agencies move toward a goal of testing at least 60,000 state and college workers through the “Not Me” prevention program.

The state is also penalizing costly lifestyle choices. Employees face the prospect of a $25 monthly premium surcharge starting July 1 if they use tobacco. A $50 per month surcharge hits state employees whose spouses have other insurance options but go with state coverage.

More than 12,000 employees or spouses are expected to be listed as smokers, according to Health Care Authority estimates.

The surcharges are coming under fire, and state government’s largest employee union filed a grievance last week seeking to undo them.

The Washington Federation of State Employees filed the grievance over the surcharges imposed by the Legislature in 2013. The grievance contends that the $25 surcharge for tobacco use and $50 for covering some spouses and domestic partners violates a labor contract between the government and more than two dozen agencies. That contract mandates that workers pay only 15 percent of the cost of their health premiums and the state pays the rest, the union contends.

The Health Care Authority declined to comment on the grievance, which was filed with the governor’s labor relations office at the Office of Financial Management. If the state and union cannot reach agreement, the matter could go to arbitration.

“At this point in time, it does not impact the state’s ability to go forward with its surcharges,’’ OFM spokesman Ralph Thomas said.

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