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Successful wellness program can trim disability, absence costs

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BOSTON — Leveraging a workplace wellness program to reduce short-term disability claims and employee absences can be achieved, and benefits from top management's buy-in to the strategy.

At Richmond, Virginia-based CarMax L.L.C., Benefits Director Janet Bruington said the auto retailer identified a link between a 28.1% at-risk prevalence of metabolic syndrome among its 22,500 employees and the duration, incidence and medical costs of its short-term disability claims.

Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of maladies such as high blood pressure, high blood sugar and cholesterol that combine to increase health risks.

For example, medical costs among short-term disability claimants were an average of 9% higher when employees also had signs of metabolic syndrome, including Type 2 diabetes and kidney disorders.

To address the issue, CarMax launched a revamped wellness program last year specifically designed to target high blood pressure, cholesterol, body-mass index and other biometric indicators of metabolic syndrome.

After one year, the percentage of CarMax employees who were at-risk for metabolic syndrome dropped four percentage points, resulting in an estimated savings of $140,000 in costs associated with employee absences and replacement labor, Ms. Bruington said Tuesday at the National Business Group on Health's 29th National Conference for Health, Productivity and Human Capital.

Panelists said one key to CarMax's early success was a clear articulation of its strategy to evaluate its wellness program, which included a marriage of health risk and disability cost metrics that resonated with the company's risk management and financial divisions.

“Your evaluation strategy is going to be critical to getting the support and buy-in that you need, and it needs to be done early on in the process,” Jessica Grossmeier, vice president of research at the Edina, Minnesota-based Health Enhancement Research Organization, said during a panel discussion.

“It's often very difficult to link these traditionally siloed data sets,” Ms. Grossmeier said. “But if you can control this metabolic syndrome risk, you can control a lot of these other business outcomes.”