Congressional Wellness Caucus Update

A new Congressional Wellness Caucus aims to highlight awareness of the benefits of workplace wellness and companies whose programs promote it.

A new Congressional Wellness Caucus aims to highlight awareness of the benefits of workplace wellness and companies whose programs promote it.

Lest you think there's nothing but bitter partisanship over health care issues, Democrats and Republicans have found at least one idea they can agree on: wellness.

Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen shared a podium Monday to announce a Congressional Wellness Caucus to put workplace wellness on the nation's agenda. The goal is to give businesses a better blueprint for how to reduce health care costs by helping workers make better lifestyle choices.

"We want to form this caucus to get those 'best practices' out there, so that small- and medium-sized companies have the same advantages as the bigs, in terms of knowing what's out there and what's working," Klobuchar said.

Sen. John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota, and Rep. Ron Kind, a Democrat from Wisconsin, have also signed on to the effort, which was approved by the House on Friday and is expected to be in full force by fall.

Chronic diseases, which often are preventable, take 75 cents of every health care dollar, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Businesses lose $310 billion in lost productivity and health care costs from tobacco use, obesity and related complications such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Studies have shown that for every $1 a company puts into corporate wellness programs, $3 is saved through decreased sick days, increased worker productivity and employee retention.

Yet only about 27 percent of employers with 500 or more employees offer wellness programs, and about 43 percent with 10,000 or more do, according to health consultant Mercer.

"There's growing demand to understand and exploit the return on investment of wellness," said Tom Mason, president of the Alliance for a Healthier Minnesota, who approached Klobuchar and Paulsen about forming the caucus.

The alliance includes plans such as Blue Cross and Medica as well as companies such as General Mills and Target. Nearly 60 chambers of commerce around Minnesota have been contacted by the group and are expected to play a key role in the Congressional Wellness Caucus.

"A lot of Minnesota businesses have these programs, but they don't talk to each other," Mason said. "One of our missions is to be that bridge."

Bloomington-based Apogee Enterprises hosted the event with Klobuchar, Paulsen and Minnesota's Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger.

With about 3,300 employees in 20 locations across 11 states, the manufacturer of glass and aluminum windows was singled out because it has expanded its focus in the past three years from reducing workplace injuries to using competition and cold, hard cash as incentives to promote healthier lifestyles.

"We do it because it has a great return on it," said Apogee CEO Russ Huffer. "Believe me, it's a tough business to be in. You don't give anything away just for the fun of it."

Apogee's windows grace half of the 18 tallest buildings built in the past two decades around the world, and the company is working on three of the seven World Trade Center skyscrapers under construction around ground zero in New York City.

Last year the company encouraged its corporate office staff to climb flights of stairs equivalent to those in buildings they were working on. In all, the 40 employees marched up 32,185 stairs, the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest 12 times, according to Apogee.

This year, employees who "know their numbers" for blood pressure, weight and cholesterol can be entered for a chance to win $10,000.

As for workers' comp injuries, Huffer said that 15 years ago the average employee had an injury of some sort every 5 years. Today, he said they're approaching one every 50 years.

Some firms, like General Mills, are old hands at wellness. The Golden Valley-based food giant began investing in employee health 25 years ago, and has an on-site fitness and medical center, two miles of paved walking trails, on-site Weight Watchers meetings, cooking classes and well as eye care and dental services.

Growing numbers of small and mid-sized operations are getting into wellness. At Delkor Systems, a manufacturer of packaging machinery in Circle Pines, 38 employees have signed up for a walking clinic after the company started a wellness program last month sponsored by the Statewide Health Improvement Program.

Source:  The Star Tribune