New initiative targets health costs

By Vanessa Morton

City employees are encouraged to join a new program in an effort to promote healthier lifestyles and lower Chicago’s high health care costs.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Federation of Labor President Jorge Ramirez announced on Sept. 16 that a new Comprehensive Wellness Program—developed by labor unions and city officials—would be offered as a free service to city employees and their families and is set to start sometime in early 2012.

Nick Kaleba, spokesman for CFL—an umbrella organization for approximately 320 local unions in the Chicago area—explained that the plan is something unions have been talking about and supporting for a number of years.

“Now with Emanuel, who also shares the belief that the is an important program, they were able to put something together and move forward,” Kaleba said. “[The program] will help maintain health care costs at a time when nationally they’re skyrocketing, and will lead to a healthier work force.”

The program includes annual health screenings, follow-up phone calls and counseling services that will help individuals focus on key concerns and solutions regarding their health.

City employees who choose not to participate will be required to pay an extra $50 per month in health care premiums, which will be used to fund the new program.

Tom Alexander, spokesman for the mayor, said the reason for implementing the fee to those who don’t join the program is because they are costing taxpayers in the long run.

“The employees [who] aren’t addressing their health are costing the city money in terms of health insurance,” Alexander said. “They’re [really] costing the taxpayers

money, and so the increase premium is for those who don’t try.”

While the mayor is an advocate for better health, taxpayers could potentially reap the benefits from the new program. According to the mayor’s 2011 transition report, taxpayers spend nearly $500 million on health care costs for city employees, their families and retirees. Alexander said it’s the third biggest cost that taxpayers pay, and it’s growing at a rate of 10–15 percent per year.

However, the new program is projected to save taxpayers $20 million during the first year of implementation, but not everyone is convinced.

Grace Budrys, a sociology professor at DePaul University with expertise on doctors’ unions and other unions in the health care sector, said the mayor’s plan to save millions of dollars through his new program is wishful thinking.

“If it helps some people become healthier, it’s a good thing, but whether it will save that much money is an entirely different question,” Budrys said. “Typically people like to have this kind of support and usually it does make a difference in making people healthier, but there’s no reason to think that it’s going to save money.”

While this is the first type of wellness program attempted by Chicago, Alexander said the plan is based on similar programs that have taken place in the private sector. One such program was done by Johnson & Johnson, which managed to reduce smoking by two-thirds, drop high blood pressure by half and see nearly $3 for every $1 invested in their wellness plan.

Alexander said the program is truly about making city employees healthier and lives better. He said it was important that the plan help motivate the employees to take an active role in their own health and that of their families.

“It’s important that they choose to be involved in the program and make a good effort to address their health directly,” Alexander said. “The only requirement of the employees in the program is that they try.”