A healthy employee is a more productive employee, and some of Wilmington's largest employers are taking strides to help their employees get fit.
New wellness initiatives at GE (see sidebar), PPD and New Hanover Regional Medical Center have employees sweating together, building camaraderie and celebrating successes.
A place to shrink
From the gutted remnants of the building that once housed Port City Health Club & Spa has risen NHRMC's Employee Fitness Center, a modern, comprehensive gym that can compete with the best commercial gyms in the region. It's the keystone in an overall wellness plan that is transforming the employee population of the hospital and its affiliates.
Under the watch of CEO Jack Barto, NHRMC spent more than a million dollars to completely renovate the facility. Fitness center manager Jason Albertson equipped the gym with 40 cardio machines with iPod compatible touch screens, weight machines and a new rubberized track. The facility includes a child-care room (staffed 61 hours per week), a spin room (with 17 bikes), an exercise room (where some of the facility's 64 weekly classes are held) and a massage room. It does not include a pool -- one feature of the old facility that wasn't economically prudent, said Karen Curran, director of benefits and compensation.
After the facility opened, Barto approached Albertson and asked, "Do you need anything else?"
Albertson still smiles incredulously when he recalls that conversation. The corporate boss had given Albertson everything he asked for, including a staff of 13 full-time employees. Then, Barto asked him if he wanted more.
That leaves little doubt as to NHRMC's dedication to improving their employees' health.
"I wanted it to be a really positive experience for the employees," Barto said. Their satisfaction would be key to their continued participation.
NHRMC is tracking its success. They have established a goal of 5,000 pounds lost by the end of 2012. More than 2,400 employees are paying the modest price of $5 per pay period ($10 for a family membership) to join the fitness center. About 22 percent of those members use the facility at least twice a week, so the goal isn't unrealistic.
NHRMC is in the health business, so they want employees to exhibit the healthy lifestyle they encourage their patients to adopt. The initiative began three years ago with the senior management team's challenge. Barto lost 31 pounds. Altogether, the group of 11 lost 176 pounds. They still work out as a group once a week and nearly all of them still use personal trainers.
"The overall idea is that we want to improve our employees' health for a variety of reasons," said Erin Balzotti, media relations coordinator. "We're in a position to help the community, so it made sense to start with our employees."
PPD, the pharmaceutical research company headquartered in Wilmington, has a similar philosophy.
With its own gym and an on-site medical clinic, PPD wants healthy employees. The company also sponsors the annual Beach 2 Battleship Triathlon and conducts the Transformation Challenge, in which select employees are given a trainer and a program to help them become healthier. Eighteen participants in 2010 and 2011 lost more than 355 pounds. Employees apply for the program and are selected based on need and potential for success.
Ryan Gillespie, corporate wellness manager at PPD, said some employees just aren't mentally ready or have obligations that would preclude them from committing to the challenge.
Both PPD and NHRMC have evidence that a focus on employee health can change people's lives.
Jeff Michelletti, a clinical research associate, participated in the Transformation Challenge at PPD in 2010. He started at 285 pounds.
He has dropped more than 40 pounds and recently cycled 56 miles for a PPD relay team in the 2012 B2B Triathlon.
Michelletti is visibly fitter. But his physique isn't the only part of him that has improved.
"Your work does suffer if you're not healthy," Michelletti said. "Exercise is a great stress reliever."
Albertson was asked how many NHRMC employees had lost 25 or 50 pounds.
"50 (pounds)?" he asked. "How about 100?"
Eight employees have dropped 100 pounds. You don't need a medical degree to know that life is better for those people.
They have more energy. They have more self-confidence. And they have lower medical bills.
The bottom line
Companies might have you believe that their goals are primarily altruistic, and it's hard to believe that the espoused benefits to employees are just a positive side effect of a corporate conspiracy to cut costs. But there's no doubt that the corporate wellness plans are structured with a goal of reducing the company's health care expenses.
Both NHRMC and PPD are self-insured. If their employees are scheduling fewer doctor's appointments and taking fewer prescribed medicines, the companies save money.
Gillespie estimated that every doctor's visit costs an employee two hours away from their desk. PPD's on-site clinic eliminates many routine appointments, reducing workday interruptions.
"If an employee has a deadline to meet, the last thing they want to do is spend two or three hours to go to the doctor's office," said Vanessa Cain, manager of the PPD employee health clinic.
At NHRMC, Barto is expecting to see some return on investment. It's not that he expects to deduct millions from the company's bottom line on health expenses, but he would like to see a change.
At NHRMC, medical costs hover around $36 million per year for about 9,000 insured lives (employees plus dependents).
Barto said he would like to reduce the cost by about 10 percent by the end of 2013. He estimates that the hospital is investing about half a million dollars per year in the wellness program, so a $3 million decrease would be a remarkable return.
With costs rising 7 to 10 percent annually, even a flat line in health care costs could be considered a success. Barto said NHRMC's health care expenses have remained fairly flat for the past three years.
Regardless of the monetary savings, Curran says she sees the value of the program daily.
"The ROI is in front of us every day," she said. "We can see it in the claims we didn't process; we can see it in the diabetes we didn't (need to) control."
PPD's Michelletti is living proof of the difference a corporate wellness initiative can make.
Since he started the Transformation Challenge, Michelletti has halved his cholesterol medication. On his next doctor's visit, he hopes to be cleared to stop taking his blood pressure medication altogether.
For him, that's just one more reward.
He's more focused. He looks healthier. He's more involved in the PPD culture.
"I feel 100 percent better," he said.
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