The State Worker

State program promotes health

Gov. Jerry Brown’s revised budget renews a plan to cut the state’s employee medical costs with a cheaper, lower-benefit plan and shifting more costs to workers. The unions aren’t thrilled.

But about a five-minute walk east of the Capitol, a 3-year-old collaboration between the administration and the state’s biggest labor organization is testing another method to chip away at the state’s employee medical costs.

The “Healthier U” program uses social media, peer support and a sense of friendly competition to encourage wholesome living. The pilot project holds out enough promise that Brown’s budget proposes creating one full-time position in the Department of Human Resources to expand it. So far it’s been available to about 4,000 workers in the departments of Public Health and Health Care Services who work at the East End Complex.

The stakes are enormous. This year, taxpayers will spend about $5 billion on medical bills for state workers and retirees. The government’s long-term medical care promises to retirees total an estimated $72 billion and growing. Unlike pensions, the state sets aside nothing for future health costs.

Healthier U offers work site health screenings and encourages setting personal goals for diet and physical activity. The Health Trails unit, for example, is an eight-week challenge that encourages employees to form teams, track their exercise and report how many servings of fruits and vegetables they eat.

Participants then log their accomplishments online. A computer program translates the data into miles that the employees can use to virtually traverse famous trails worldwide. Employees also can challenge each other to friendly fitness competitions.

Although there’s no financial incentive, the percentage of Healthier U participants who reported being active less than three days per week fell from 21 percent to 5 percent. They’ve logged 2 million minutes of exercise. Nearly 40 percent reported losing weight.

The secret, said Department of Human Resources spokesman Jim Zamora, is that management and SEIU Local 1000 have promoted the pilot. Although Kaiser Permanente, the treasurer, the state controller and the departments have all lent a hand, Healthier U is an employee-driven program with “good buy-in to make it work,” Zamora said.

Still, Healthier U progress is slow. Program data hasn’t been fully analyzed because there’s been no money for it. The full-time CalHR employee’s job is simply to expand the program to a couple of other work sites.

What could this mean for taxpayers? A 2008 study indicated that every dollar spent on workplace wellness programs can reduce medical care costs by $3.27 and absenteeism costs by $2.73. Another study found that CalPERS in 2008 spent nearly 25 cents of every medical care dollar on treating preventable diseases.

Don’t be surprised if the unions use those numbers to counter Brown’s cheaper-health plan proposals as the budget debate heats up.

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