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Wellness efforts evolving to include behavioral health

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SAN FRANCISCO — Employers who want to bolster employee health while saving costs related to mental health conditions and disability leaves are putting behavioral health initiatives at the forefront of their employee wellness programs.

Programs that improve employees' behavioral health, which encompasses mental, emotional and spiritual well-being, can also help boost productivity and engagement, benefits experts say.

“We know that behavioral health is one of the fastest-growing conditions in the workplace, and is going to soon become one of the most expensive health conditions in the workplace because we know it's a comorbid as well as a primary condition,” Patricia Purdy, vice president of global employer solutions at Chicago-based employee benefits advisory firm Pacific Resources Benefits Advisors L.L.C., said during a session at the Integrated Benefits Institute's annual forum in San Francisco Feb. 15-17.

Nearly one in five Americans — 43.8 million adults — experienced mental illness in 2013, according to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Ten million adults experienced a serious mental illness and 15.7 million adults experienced a major depressive episode in 2013, the organization said.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, mental illness costs more than $300 billion per year in medical costs, disability support and lost earnings.

Employers incur an estimated $100 billion annually in direct and indirect costs associated with depression, including as much as $44 billion lost to employee absences and lower productivity, according to a survey published in 2014 by Employers Health Coalition Inc., a Canton, Ohio-based not-for-profit health benefits service provider.

Aside from cutting down on health costs and increasing productivity, behavioral health programs also help with attracting and retaining employees, said Kimberly George, Chicago-based senior vice president of corporate development, mergers and acquisitions and health care with Sedgwick Claims Management Services Inc.

“Shareholders today look at an organization beyond just that stock price,” she said during the session.

By focusing on the behavioral health of its 22,000 employees, Greenville, South Carolina-based tire manufacturer Michelin North America Inc. has managed to reduce outpatient claims spending related to behavioral health by 30%, according to Jim West, manager of Michelin's behavioral health program, Michelin Employee Life Services.

The program places Michelin's employee assistance program, run by Beacon Health Options, up front and includes EAP counselors in its on-site health centers, a Web-based cognitive behavioral therapy tool, and telepsychiatry for employees in locations without access to mental health care providers.

“A lot of organizations give away EAP, but what I saw was an organization of great value to the rest of our health care strategy,” Mr. West said.

Through collaboration and cross-referrals among different Michelin health care providers, as well as communication efforts by the company's leadership, overall utilization of Michelin's EAP was 19% in 2014, which Mr. West said is “unheard of in the industry,” and 10.4% of employees used counseling only in 2014.

Mr. West said the program boasts a return on investment of 182%.