University saves money by promoting wellness

Posted: Friday, August 17, 2007

Similar to workers in every sector of the economy, the employees of the University of Alaska system watched their health care premiums increase dramatically over the past several years. Rather than stand by idly, the administration became determined to slow that trend. It decided to get healthier.

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Because the university is self insured, health care costs are directly affected by the well-being of its employees. UA system health care covers employees and their dependents - approximately 10,000 Alaskans. The university system's annual health care costs hover around $55 million. With health care costs rising by 12 to 14 percent per year, the university needed to find ways to cut costs without reducing the quality of coverage.

In 2005, the university system initiated a risk assessment survey to help its employees better understand their own health risks. The survey is administered by a third-party vender and individual results are not shared with the UA administration. Gross survey data is provided to help determine risk trends that could be mitigated through education or other preventative measures. Each employee is given personalized feedback on their survey results along with suggestions in lifestyle changes that could reduce their individual risk.

"As a result of UA's proactive approach, our employees are paying less into our health care system this year than they did last. That is great news," UAS Chancellor John Pugh said.

"We are in the education business and that does not stop with our students," Pugh went on to say. "Not everybody has the information and tools they need to make healthy decisions. Fast food and alcohol companies spend billions of dollars promoting their products as leading to fun and happy lives. The least we can do is to educate our faculty and staff on the benefits of healthy alternatives that truly lead to wellbeing. It seems like the socially responsible thing to do."

Not only is it socially responsible, said Mike Humphrey, director of benefits for the UA system, it's also fiscally responsible. "For every dollar spent on prevention and education, it is estimated to save $3 in health care costs. Yes, it's a savings to the UA system, but that savings also represents healthier individuals."

The UA system contracted Wellness Initiatives Network for Alaska to help promote wellness to its employees. WIN for Alaska works with governing bodies throughout the UA system, such as the UAS Staff Alliance, to organize walks during lunch breaks and register staff and faculty for blood cholesterol and glucose screenings. WIN for Alaska also distributes a bi-monthly newsletter with health tips, recent medical findings, wholesome snack ideas and upcoming health related events.

UAS held a successful event on Wednesday to promote healthy snacks, called Snack Wars. Each department was challenged to provide a healthy snack, its recipe and a brief explanation of the qualities that make it a healthy snack. Instead of their morning coffee break, employees visited other departments to sample snacks and voted on which was tastiest and most healthful.

"Regardless of who won the contest, I think it was a great message to send to our students," said Mike Ciri, UAS information technology director, whose department won Snack Wars with its entry of cinnamon poached pears stuffed with walnuts and raisins.

"The 'Freshmen 40' (referring to the weight many freshmen gain during their first year away from home) is real, and it happens because students are not making healthy choices. Staff can be good mentors; modeling teamwork, group participation and healthy lifestyles," Ciri said. "I think these kinds of little events are where the staff can really contribute to our students' education."

• Kevin Myers is the director of public relations and marketing at the University of Alaska Southeast.



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