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Incentives, upgrades gave university's wellness program a shot in the arm

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While mapping a new group health insurance strategy to minimize Western Kentucky University's exposure to the so-called “Cadillac tax” and reducing its benefits costs, Kari A. Aikins saw an opportunity to breathe new life into the university's floundering workplace wellness program.

“We'd started offering a wellness program about eight or nine years ago, but all it really entailed was partnering with a vendor and encouraging employees to take a health risk assessment and do a biometric screening,” said Ms. Aikins, the university's assistant director of human resources. “We hosted a few seminars or classes throughout the year, but that was really it.”

When the university revamped its wellness strategy in 2013 by adding modest financial rewards and more health management activities, most still failed to register above 50% participation.

Also, the percentage of employees with three or more risky health behaviors or conditions rose in 2014, according to data collected by the university's wellness program providers, Nurtur Health Inc. and LiveHealthier Inc.

So Ms. Aikins, her staff and New York-based human resources specialist Sibson Consulting devised a new incentive structure by combining financial rewards and penalties linked to the amount employees must pay and university contributions to employees' health savings accounts or health reimbursement arrangements.

Under the new Top Life plan, employees enrolled in one of the university's three account-based health plans can sign a pledge at the start of each plan year and complete two wellness initiatives and activities, such as a weight loss or smoking-cessation program, for a larger contribution to their HSA or HRA and discounts on their health care premium.

For those who fail to complete the activities within the allotted time, the university reclaims its contributions and charges employees higher premiums for the rest of the plan year.

“That loss-aversion component, at least in my opinion, proved to be very powerful,” said Wade Pinkard, the university's employee wellness manager. About 88% of eligible employees signed the Top Life pledge this year; 98% of those completed health-risk assessments and biometric screenings, nearly doubling the previous year's completion rate, he said.

“As that first deadline got closer and closer earlier this year, we sent out a lot of communications to employees warning them that if they didn't complete the first part of the pledge, their premiums were going to go up, and that moved a lot of people toward action,” Mr. Pinkard said.

The new incentive structure appears to be having a positive effect, Mr. Pinkard said.

According to data by the university's wellness program providers, 29.2% of participants were living moderate or high-risk health lifestyles in the first half of this year, down from 34.5% last year.

Now, the university is exploring ways to promote financial, social, mental and economic health.

Mr. Pinkard said he'd also like to see a campuswide ban on tobacco use, a healthy foods policy for all university-sponsored events and a more comprehensive work/ life balance program.