Reaping What You Sow
By Cindy Sanders
Given a choice between a workforce with optimized health and productivity and one that works well below capacity, no employer would willingly opt for the latter … and in the face of today’s rising healthcare costs and premiums, more and more businesses are actively intervening to try to secure the former.
That was the case for Christopher W. Silva, president and CEO of St. Francis Winery & Vineyards in Sonoma, Calif., who implemented a workforce wellness program last August. Addressing the audience at the recent Aegis Health Group I3 Conference (Insight, Innovation, Impact) in Nashville, Silva anticipated tangible improvements in the health status of his workforce when comparing baseline data to screening results at the one-year anniversary mark. By catching potentially serious health issues early and addressing them, St. Francis is reducing employee absenteeism, enhancing productivity and taking steps to reduce future claim costs. The projected first-year savings is in the range of $50,000
Certainly tangible improvements are important to both the employee and employer, but Silva said it’s the intangibles … the sense of being valued by the company, empowerment in making healthcare decisions and increased camaraderie among colleagues … that has turned a good program into a great one for the award-winning winery.
Silva, the 2011 chairman of the Board of Trustees of Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, was happy to be an early adopter of the hospital’s Workforce Health Initiative to begin to address health risks before they turned into expensive healthcare claims. The winery has more than 130 employees, many of whom are skilled laborers with very physical duties. The program, he continued, was consistent with the three tenets of St. Francis Winery … “quality products, quality people and quality relationships.”
He recalled, “Last summer we started with a kick-off event, which was essentially a health screening with our employees. We had almost 100 percent participation.” The confidential personal health data collected by the hospital was then presented in aggregate form to the company’s management team, which was surprised by the results. “Despite one of the most competitive benefits packages in our industry for all our employees, we found half our employees did not have a primary care physician, and 42 percent had never had a physical exam,” Silva noted. Furthermore 30 percent of the St. Francis workforce smoked and 34 percent had hypertension.
To turn the tide, the winery’s senior leadership set a goal to positively impact the health of employees utilizing prevention, intervention and management strategies. Through the workforce wellness initiative, the company began hosting a series of seminars both in English and Spanish focusing on nutrition, healthy snacking options, exercise, stress management and smoking cessation, among other relevant topics. “We targeted the specific areas we thought were endemic to our particular workforce population,” Silva explained.
St. Francis also sponsored healthy activities and events; sent out mailings and emails regarding health awareness and hospital-championed programming focused on improvement; encouraged building a physician relationship and engaging family members to promote successful lifestyle changes at home; and counted on senior management to lead by example.
“A healthier workforce drives higher quality. That’s been proven to me time and again,” Silva said, adding that as important as increased productivity and efficiency are, the real gift of such a program is to “further emphasize the dignity and value of every member of the team.” He continued, “Certainly, every member of our vineyard team is important. We can’t make world-class wines without world-class grapes, and we need good people to grow and pick those grapes. There’s an appreciation by the team members who clearly see this as an employee benefit. It’s also been a significant morale booster.”
Recently, Silva witnessed 44 men lined up in the vineyard stretching, exercising and laughing. “There was a lot of good-natured cheer and camaraderie,” he said. Silva noted that while the company initiated the discussion about individuals taking control of their own health, the employees have taken that message and expounded upon it. “Workforce wellness is an example of once you open a mind, it’s hard to close.” He added, “It’s just been a very positive exercise … pun intended … for our employees.”
It’s also been easy to implement. The program, crafted by Nashville-based Aegis Health Group in collaboration with local health facilities and systems, is essentially a turnkey process for employers. Since Aegis is a company that specializes in the execution of revenue growth strategies for hospitals, it might seem counterintuitive that they would create a program to keep individuals outof the hospital, but Yale Miller, the company’s executive vice president overseeing operations, negated that idea.
He explained that in today’s reimbursement profile, which includes a national average of 12 percent in uncompensated care, hospitals must really rely on the 32-33 percent of business from commercially insured populations to shore up operating margins. Those patients most often are part of an employer-sponsored plan. Battling double-digit premium increases, employers have cut benefits, increased employee payment responsibilities and shopped carriers. In this climate, Miller said it is essential for hospitals to develop solid relationships with employers to ensure continued access to care at their facilities through the plans chosen. “At the individual employee level, we want to be able to influence their choice of physician … primarily the primary care provider but also for ancillary services,” Miller continued.
To that end, the Workforce Health Initiative builds relationships with employers and employees, pleases carriers by improving health status and decreasing claims, and positions the hospital as a partner vested in the employees’ well-being. “We try to create a value exchange that creates positive results for all three parties,” Miller said. “We really think it is a win/win/win for all three groups.”
Although, on average, employers now change insurance providers every 18 months, the hospital retains all the health assessment data from the workforce initiative so it’s possible to accurately track health status for an employee population. “It helps provide stability and sustainability over time,” Miller explained.
In the end, he said, it’s really just the right thing to do. It makes sense for the hospital, which has the tools to address specific health concerns, to take an active role in preventive care and chronic disease management. “The hospital is saying, ‘hey, we want to be part of the solution,’ and I think employers really appreciate hospitals making the investment on their behalf.”