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City to workers: Join wellness program or pay $50 a month more

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has forged an agreement with city unions plan use whhe has called “carrot-and-stick approach” drive down city’s

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has forged an agreement with city unions on a plan to use what he has called the “carrot-and-stick approach” to drive down the city’s $500 million-a-year health-care costs by as much as $240 million over four years. | Al Podgorski~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 10, 2011 10:54AM

City employees would see their monthly health insurance premiums rise by $50 unless they participate in a “wellness program” to manage chronic health problems such as obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure, under a private sector-style plan to be unveiled Friday.

After a standoff on work-rule changes, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has forged an agreement with city unions on a plan to use what he has called the “carrot-and-stick approach” to drive down the city’s $500 million-a-year health care costs by as much as $240 million over four years.

The program would begin by offering city employees and their dependents enhanced screening and wellness training to establish benchmarks and long-term goals, including weight loss, medication, exercise and kicking the smoking habit.

Coaches would ride herd over workers on a bi-monthly basis to make certain they’re following their prescribed nutritional, medical and physical fitness regimens. Those who refuse to participate would see their monthly premiums rise by $50. Those who meet their goals could see similar reductions.

“There’s no penalty for getting sick. But, if you choose not to be in it and do it on your own, you’re gonna pay $50 more a month and $50 for your wife. That’s not that much money,” said Lou Phillips, business manager of Laborers Union Local 1001.

Phillips, who is diabetic, added, “It’ll get us in shape. You’re actually making yourself better. In the long run, it’s gonna save millions and millions of dollars. If people are healthy, they won’t be going to doctors to get toes or feet amputated. They won’t be going blind or getting dialysis for kidney failure.”

The only union that has not yet signed on to the wellness agreement is the Fraternal Order of Police — and for good reason, said president Mike Shields.

“Look at our membership. We’re not the healthiest. There are people who are overweight. We have higher blood pressure than your average citizen. We have a higher rate of diabetes from working different watches and eating more fast food,” Shields said.

“If you don’t participate and do every aspect of what wellness is telling you, at some point, they’re gonna turn around and say, ‘You have a higher premium.’ We have to make sure we’re protecting our membership from having to pay more of a premium than our current system.”

Chicago taxpayers spend $500 million-a-year to provide health care for city employees, nearly ten percent of the city’s annual budget.

Emanuel campaigned on a promise to reduce those annual costs by as much as $60 million in each of the next four years by implementing an incentive-laden plan mirrored after the one pioneered by Safeway and Johnson & Johnson.

Over the years, the city has tried to use preventive screening programs to rein in burgeoning health care costs. But, Emanuel argued last month that participation has fallen short, in part, because lucrative incentives are missing.

“There’s a reason the private sector has embraced this whole hog. And there’s a reason we’re gonna embrace it whole hog. It’s a good public health strategy,” the mayor said then.

“We cannot afford the standard we’re on. And we can’t afford to do pilots anymore. ... Six-to-eight percent of the city’s employees drive almost two-thirds of the health care costs around five chronic illnesses that are all manageable. ... We are going to be the first city to ... implement a citywide wellness plan for our employees because health care costs are being driven [up] by ten percent a year and we’re not seeing revenue growing that way.”

Johnson & Johnson managed to reduce employee smoking by two-thirds, cut high-blood pressure in half and get $3 of savings for every $1 invested in incentives.

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