30% of Alabama State Workers Face Health Risks, Wellness Screening Finds

August 24, 2009

Nearly one out of every three Alabama state employees has health risks like high blood pressure and obesity, with some on the brink of a health catastrophe, wellness screenings have revealed.

The State Employees’ Insurance Board screened 28,593 — or 76 percent — of state employees from January through July. It found 30 percent facing health risks: 17 percent were obese, 6 percent had high cholesterol, 5 percent had high blood pressure and 2 percent had high blood glucose levels. Board CEO William Ashmore said the percentages don’t count anyone twice.

“These folks for the most part didn’t even know they were at risk. We are steadily finding people who are borderline for strokes, diabetes and we’re sending them to the emergency room,” Ashmore told the board Wednesday. “We’re finding people who are just days away from something catastrophic happening.”

Those with risks have a year to see a doctor, enroll in a wellness program, or take steps on their own to improve their health. Those who don’t show progress must pay an extra $30 a month for health insurance.

The board approved a plan last year to charge employees with health risks more for their health insurance than others. It was designed to make them more aware of their health and take care of conditions that make them more expensive to insure.

Ashmore has said the program’s research shows that someone who is obese with a body mass index of 35 to 39 generates $1,748 more annually in medical expenses than someone with a normal body mass index of 25 or less.

The wellness program is expected to produce long-term savings by reducing serious medical problems that are costly to treat.

Board member John McMillan said he knows someone who had been on medication for high blood pressure since his 20’s but was able to ditch the pills completely after dropping about 45 pounds decades later.

“That personal experience was enough to convince me that this program is well worth it,” he said.

“It verifies to us that we’ve done the right thing to commit some personnel and financial resources to that effort,” McMillan said. “In the grand scheme of things that’s what all of us in America need to do. It might even become a model for other states.”

Many state employee insurance plans offer wellness programs to try to get workers to lose weight or drop bad habits, but Alabama is among a small group using monthly financial incentives to get them to be healthier.

Smokers will have to pay an additional $30 per month starting in January, up from the $25 they’re paying now. As of August 2008, the percentage of state employees who smoke had dropped from 22 percent to 19 percent since the extra charge was approved four years earlier.

Bill Newton, who serves on the insurance board, said participation in the work-site screening was better than expected, and officials think as many as 90 percent will complete the testing by the January deadline.

“The theory behind the program is in the name: ‘Wellness,”‘ he said. “We’re attempting to find ways to help state employees have better health and we’re putting a financial incentive on employees to have these checkups.”

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