Not your parents' wellness program

The last thing kids want to hear about is eating more fruits and vegetables, drinking more water and staying aware of their health risks - especially if their parents are saying it, too.

But to drive down health care costs, employer-sponsored wellness programs must zero in on dependents covered under the health plan. It's a tough challenge, given that employers typically don't have direct access to covered dependents.

Wellness experts say companies can get employees' spouses and other family members who are covered under the health plan on board with their wellness efforts and health philosophy by making sure that health management programs discuss childhood fitness and nutrition, and by designing incentives that reward dependent participation.

Strategic incentives

"That fact that dependents are not often onsite is a hurdle in getting dependents to participate in wellness programs," explains Bob Soroosh, director of benefit administration at Affinia Group, Inc., an Illinois-based company that produces highway replacement products.

One way to overcome that hurdle is by offering a paper version of a health assessment to employees and dependents that can be mailed to their home, Soroosh says. "We also give dependents the option to complete their biometric screenings during one of our onsite health screenings or at their doctor's office."

Affinia's medical plan covers about 8,000 beneficiaries, including about 3,800 employees and 4,200 dependents throughout the United States.

In 2006, the company started offering employees a $1,000 reductionin their annual premium contribution if they agreed to participate in a health prevention program.

The company provides additional incentives for employees or dependents who complete specific wellness programs.

"That means an employee can receive additional contributions to their health reimbursement account when they, or one of their dependents, complete one of these programs," Soroosh notes.

As for incentives related to dependents participating in health and wellness programs, employers should always consider using incentives that are aligned with the company's culture.

Cash and gift cards are always good, says David Jacoby, vice president of business development at WellCall, a San Francisco-based wellness solution provider.

Employers also may want to consider knocking additional dollars off an employee's health insurance premium contribution if his or her dependents sign up for a disease management program or wellness initiative.

Holding health fairs during the weekends or after work also allows employers to get that one-on-one contact with dependents.

Such events can result in dependents taking health risk assessments and biometrics screenings.

Factoring in childhood obesity

Employers that focus on dependent wellness mainly set their sights on dependent children who are over the age of 18, and spouses and domestic partners, says Melissa Vaughn, a strategic account manager at StayWell Health Management, a health management program provider.

However, experts agree that getting young kids directly involved in workplace health management programs is tough but necessary. They stress that employers' wellness initiatives should always include a component on childhood health and fitness.

"You want to coach the parent about healthy behaviors kids ought to be engaged in. The message might get across much better if you are coaching the parent to provide that information to the kid," says Jacoby.

Yet be mindful that kids imitate their parents, says Kay Curling, vice president of HR, compensation, benefits and HRIS at SI International, a Va.-based information technology services company.

"If a parent is coming home from work and only sits on a couch with a remote control watching television and eating dinner, then what do we expect our kids to do?"

The workplace can get the parent involved in a wellness program, where he or she can learn about fitness and nutrition, but the program also should consider advice aimed at kids, says Curling.

The prevalence of childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the United States and is a major public health issue. Consequently, it's affecting corporate health care costs and productivity.

"Yet, you just can't look at childhood obesity in terms of health care costs. Employers also have to examine it within the context of presenteeism," Curling asserts. It's common for parents to be preoccupied at work with thoughts of their children, even under normal circumstances.

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