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National Pharmacy Flap Raises Questions About Wellness Programs

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - A national pharmacy chain felt the heat earlier this week after employees learned they would have to submit weight, blood pressure and other health lab information or face higher health insurance rates.

But do wellness programs encourage healthy living or possibly invade privacy?

CVS Caremark recently told 200,000 employees they must undergo a health screening and report results to a wellness company if they want to keep the lowest health insurance rates offered by the company. Those who don't would have to pay an extra $50 per month for their insurance.

But the national flap brings up the question just how aggressive are eastern Iowa companies when it comes to getting employees into a wellness program and lowering medical costs?

Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids offers both an extensive wellness program for employees and a service setting up wellness programs at about 40 area employers. Managers said some companies opt for the least intrusive program—such as voluntary healthy living advice. Others insist on yearly physicals, blood tests and coaching, and even passing health scores, if workers want the lowest insurance rates.

Mercy launched its own wellness program for employees back in 2006. Outpatient surgery nurse Barb Postl said she was hesitant to take part at first. It was, and remains, voluntary. But as Postl got more and more involved and began earning some of the incentive rewards she became a believer.

"Sure you have all that resistance at first, but if you talk to the employees they find it very beneficial now," Postl said.

Two years ago, Mercy set up a wellness center in an adjoining building with medical professionals and wellness coaches on site and available throughout the day. Postl said she visits once every three months.

Coaches and managers who set up similar programs for other companies say what CVS is doing isn't all that different from what you can find at many eastern Iowa companies. But one rule they try to follow is to start slow and employees used to the concept first. If you rush, you get resistance.

Kate Klefftad, one of the wellness coaches, said "it's very important to build a culture first. You can sell it as something you're doing to people or you can provide it as an opportunity for people to get involved in for themselves."

Kathy Keane, manager of MercyCare Business Health Solutions, added "we usually make it an opportunity to get involved with your health versus being required to do something."

Wellness coaches said some people respond better in group settings. As an example, 700 Mercy employees signed up for the latest weight loss competition. Others do better with individual attention. But in general, more companies are starting to link wellness participation and wellness scores with health insurance rates.

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