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SACRAMENTO, Calif.-Eight California government agencies are taking part in a wellness pilot program that eventually could be expanded statewide to 200,000 workers.

Last week, workers in the Sacramento headquarters of eight state agencies completed the first phase of the pilot, a series of free health screenings held onsite at government agencies. About 2,500 workers, or about 25% of the workforce, were expected to have participated by week's end, officials said.

State workers in Sacramento have enthusiastically welcomed the screenings, said Debbie Endsley, manager of the initiative, which is being co-sponsored by California Public Employees' Retirement System and the state Department of Personnel Administration.

The program includes blood pressure, body fat and cholesterol checks, as well as diabetes screening.

The most popular aspect of the screenings has been individual, private sessions with visiting nurses, registered nurses or medical technicians.

"They appreciate onsite cholesterol testing, but they really appreciate a medical professional sitting down with them for 15 minutes," she said. "They appreciate that they can ask any question and it's completely confidential."

Future phases of the wellness pilot will offer employee walking clubs, the placement of more nutritional food in worker cafeterias, and guest speakers on health topics.

The initiative stems from an April 1995 order by Gov. Pete Wilson ordering all state departments to participate in health and fitness programs.

The agencies expect that the wellness effort will help lower health insurance and workers compensation costs and reduce absenteeism, according to James E. Burton, CalPERS' chief executive officer. Ten HMOs, Merck & Co. and Johnson & Johnson are donating resources to the program.

The agencies taking part in the wellness program were CalPERS, the State Compensation Insurance Fund, the California Highway Patrol, the Department of Motor Vehicles, the DPA, the California Department of Transportation, the Department of Health Services, and the State Resources Agency.

By Robert Kazel

More re-engineering

Corporate benefits staffs are busier than ever automating and revamping their departments to modernize plan administration, and they are getting more support than ever from the upper echelons of management, a new study indicates.

The report, by New York-based employee benefit consulting firm A. Foster Higgins & Co. Inc., indicates that businesses are doing an "unprecedented" level of strategic planning for 1997 and considerably more than in previous surveys.

According to the survey of 336 employers, 57% are evaluating software, and 60% are redesigning systems. Additionally, 48% of those surveyed said they were planning to change health plans to ease administration, and the same percentage of employers say that they are reorganizing the human resources department in general.

"There seems to be much, much more activity, and much, much more recognition and budget available to do that kind of work," said Mark Rand, a Foster Higgins principal in New York.

The consequences could be harsh for some benefits staff, Mr. Rand said. Personnel either are being displaced by these types of technology or, if more fortunate, are being moved from traditional "paper-shuffling" clerical roles into more analytical administrative jobs, he said.

"Benefits staff are getting smaller and are moving to outsource the administrative aspects," he said. "The more tools that are out there to use, the greater the staff reduction we will see."

Benefits administration is handled by an average of eight professionals and two support staff, the study found, with the ratio of employees to benefits staff increasing dramatically with company size. There was one benefits staff member for every 149 workers at small companies, those with fewer than 500 employees; there was one benefits staff member for every 2,385 employees for large companies, those with 5,000 or more workers.

The companies reported spending, on average, one out of five human resources dollars on their benefit plan administration last year.

The study, "The Foster Higgins Survey on Human Resources Administration 1996," can be purchased for $50 by contacting Tara Lewis, 212-574-9025.

By Robert Kazel

More partner benefits

SAN FRANCISCO-Joining a growing list of large employers, BankAmerica Corp. will offer benefits to employees' domestic partners and other adult dependents.

Starting Jan. 1, 1998, 60,000 employees of the San Francisco-based holding company for Bank of America will be allowed to sign up adult dependents for medical, dental and vision benefits equal to spousal benefits. These dependents can be parents, grandparents, adult children or domestic partners. For domestic partners, a written statement must be submitted stating the couple has been in a committed relationship for more than six months.

"It's part of our ongoing effort to create a workplace where members of the workforce can do their best work," a bank spokesman said. "It's an acknowledgement that the family our employees support may include more than just a spouse."

Bank of America joins a list of employers offering benefits to non-spouses.

Other companies that offer the benefits include International Business Machines Corp., Xerox Corp., The Walt Disney Co., Eastman-Kodak Co. and Hewlett-Packard Co.

Although the bank has been investigating extending its benefits for some years, it made the decision in part because of the new San Francisco ordinance requiring all city contractors to offer employees domestic partner benefits equal to spousal benefits, the spokesman said (BI, Nov. 11, 1996). Bank of America has contracts with the city of San Francisco.

By Michael Prince