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Where Are They Now? Ochnser's Pay-for-Prevention Program

By Brian Schilling

Three years ago in Purchasing High Performance, we reported on a novel program at Louisiana-based Ochsner Health System to pay employees—mostly via premium discounts—to stay healthy. At the time, there was considerable interest in whether employers could effectively encourage employees to become or remain healthy. Congress had just passed the Affordable Care Act, which would allow employers much greater latitude to use such incentives, albeit not until 2014. That time is not far off and interest in the question remains: can employers pay employees to be healthy?

Ochnser’s Susan Piglia, assistant vice president of corporate wellness, says yes. After three years, the program remains essentially unchanged and interest in it is stronger than ever. Participation has grown from about 80 percent of the health system’s 13,500 employees in 2010 to about 90 percent in 2013. Moreover, anecdotes abound about company employees who have lost weight, reduced their need for medications, rid themselves of diabetes, or set and met personal health goals. “One of our employees told me that she lost half her body weight, which she attributes to her participation in the program,” says Piglia. “That really made my whole week.” Piglia notes that Ochsner is looking into expanding the program to spouses because it’s the right thing to do and also because it could reduce health care costs further.

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By at least two important measures the program has been a significant success: 55 percent of participating employees have improved their blood pressure and 24 percent have lowered their body mass index. “Everyone who follows health benefits knows the significance of improving these two risk factors,” says Piglia.

Ochsner’s program is not unique. In fact, it is an off-the-shelf offering of the Virgin HealthMiles corporation, a branch of the much larger Virgin empire that includes telecommunications, airlines, music and, lately, space travel. Through the program, employees who wish to participate are given an “activity tracking device” (i.e., a sophisticated pedometer) and access to an online platform that helps them accurately capture and track daily activity, including aerobics classes, biking to work, or other exercise. Based on their level of activity, employees earn HealthMiles. Employees who reach the levels recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can earn significant premium discounts—up to $2,000 a year for family coverage.

But Piglia is quick to note that the potential premium discount isn’t the only thing that drives interest. “It’s all about the challenges,” she says, referring to the fact that participating employees are encouraged to engage their coworkers in contests. A nurse might challenge a doctor to see who can log more steps over the weekend, for instance, or billing might invite radiology to compete in a lunch time walk-off. “You see challenge emails all the time and then you see people out walking with a purpose during their lunch hour. No one here wants to lose a challenge,” says Piglia.

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