Washington County may try incentive to improve worker health

Gary B. Gray • Apr 17, 2013 at 9:20 AM

Washington County is betting that by giving full-time employees $300 every six months, or a reimbursement of monthly gym fees of $50 per month, they will be freer to choose a more convenient location, start moving more and, in the long run, save the county on insurance claims.

County Commissioners will consider the wellness program Monday.

There is a hitch. Better put: a financial incentive, in that should a gym membership cost, say $35 a month, county employees still will receive the full $50 as an incentive to get in shape. The benefit is not completely free, and employees must pay taxes on the money.

“We may be over-reimbursing, but it frees up what an individual can do,” Michelle Stewart, the county’s benefits coordinator. “Maybe the person is paying less for a membership, but that extra money is quite an incentive. We may end up paying a little bit more, but with incentives to stay healthy, the better chance we have to stabilize insurance costs.”

Stewart said a $7,500 wellness incentive grant from BlueCross BlueShield, the county’s health insurance provider, will be used to help defray costs. The rest of the money will come out of the general fund.

“They will get the $300 every six months regardless of a gym’s fee,” she said.

Employees, however, must pull their weight. To qualify, they must go to a gym that promotes cardiovascular wellness and attend the gym three times a week or 75 or more times in that six-month period. Reimbursements will only be issued in January and July.

The county’s first move will be to cut its contractual ties with Mountain States Health Alliance’s Wellness Center, with which the county has had a “corporate agreement” for the past five years. As of Monday, 14 of roughly 500 county employees were taking advantage of a full reimbursement of the Wellness Center’s $39 monthly rate, about $10 lower than “civilians” pay.

The Center’s corporate rate is $92.50 up front (about half off normal rate); $22.50 the first three months, and then $49.50 a month. Meanwhile, Tri-Cities Lifestyle Center’s corporate rate is $49 up front and $39 per month.

“We tried to get them for a long time,” said Tammy Adolph, Lifestyle’s assistant general manager. “It only takes 10 people from a company or agency to begin a corporate agreement. We have about 100 Washington County employees that go to Lifestyles, but they are not getting reimbursed. Think about it. If the county had had an agreement here, they could have saved $12,000 a year.”

If you think local government is not a segment of Washington County to be concerned about, think again. In the Johnson City metro area, including small parts of Sullivan and Carter counties, there are about 18,000 federal, state and local government workers. And government in Washington County alone accounts for 15 percent of the total workforce.

“I do have a few county employees and some Johnson City police who are members, but the county incentive will have no effect on me,” said Michael Hardin, owner of iTrain Fitness in Johnson City, which charges $35 per month. “I don’t have the overhead that the larger gyms have, and there are no corporate agreements here. But I can see how this could help my business.”

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