Employees at auto dealerships tend to be driven people.
“We work crazy hours,” says Lisa Kobus, chief financial officer of Nucar Connection, a dealership group. “We often eat on the fly because we don’t want to keep the customer waiting, ever.”
Stress and related behaviors were propelling health care costs upward for the 350 workers at Nucar’s three outlets, in New Castle, Newark and Lewes. That translated to bad news when the company would receive its bill for renewals, the cost of continuing medical coverage.
“Our renewals were horrendous,” Kobus recalls. “But we didn’t know exactly what we could do to help employees to get healthier and keep those costs down.”
Nucar decided to test drive a wellness program in hopes of cultivating better habits that would ultimately be reflected in the bottom line.
Smoking was of particular concern to the owners of the business. Nationwide, cigarettes are a heavy drag on the system, driving up health care costs as much as 30 percent, according to the Wellness Council of America. WCA estimated in 2007 that a 24-year-old man who smokes will require $220,000 in extra health care over his lifetime to treat illnesses related to tobacco.
So the company turned to its consultant, Kelly Benefits Strategies in Wilmington, to connect Nucar with a wellness adviser who would develop a smoking cessation program. Along with that carrot came a stick: smokers would be assessed a monthly fee in addition to their benefits contribution to reflect the increased health costs associated with the habit.
“Employers have been struggling to control costs by either going with plans that have high co-pays and deductibles or asking employees to pay a higher percentage of the cost,” says Jason Danner, Kelly vice president. “We have now come to the tipping point, where companies are willing to try new ways to help employees.”
The initiative includes classes on how to kick the habit, face-to-face counseling and phone counseling. Nucar’s insurance company, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Delaware, covers the cost of Chantix® and other anti-nicotine medications.
In addition, the company offered an incentive for employees to take good care of themselves, awarding points for various activities, including walking, getting a dental checkup and attending a wellness workshop. A single employee can earn enough points to reduce his contribution to the medical plan by $11 per month.
Nucar also rolled out weekly sessions with a wellness coach, who has taught employees how to make heart-healthy choices at fast food restaurants. Workers learned to exercise on the job without bulky equipment.
“It’s all resistance bands, pushups on the wall, squats and lunges,” Kobus says.
Nucar pays about $13 per month for each employee for wellness programs. That is a tiny fraction of the cost of health benefits. In 2010, the average monthly premium for employee medical coverage was $420 for a single person and $1,200 for a family, according to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Less than two years after its launch, the program already is yielding dividends. At least six employees have quit smoking. Workers have embraced healthy eating, getting together with the wellness coach to make wraps with low-fat yogurt, raisins and slivered almonds.
“I brought in leftover pastries and they sat there for a week,” Kobus says. “Two years ago, they would have been gone in an hour.”
The bottom line: after years of steady increases, health care costs are down slightly.
“We just got our renewal back and I was pleasantly surprised,” she says. “We also learned that another insurer will be bidding for our business against Blue Cross—and that hasn’t happened for a very long time.”
Chantix is a registered trademark of Pfizer Inc.