Healthy plan for city budget

By Editorial Board

The term “belt-tightening” took on a double meaning on Sept. 15, as Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced his plan to implement a wellness program intended to reduce both the costs of health care and the waist size of city employees. Emanuel, taking another private sector solution to alleviate government budget problems, offered city unions a choice: participate in coached fitness regimens and diet plans, or pay an extra $50 a month for health care premiums.

City employees and their dependents would initially receive an enhanced screening that focuses on preventative care for conditions such as asthma, diabetes and high blood pressure. Benchmarks would be used to establish long-term goals for weight loss and exercise, and smokers would be encouraged to quit. After that, bi-monthly sessions with coaches would monitor progress.

Emanuel is confident his plan will reduce health care costs for the city by $240 million during a four-year period. Chicago taxpayers pay $500 million a year for city employee health care costs, approximately 10 percent of the city’s budget.

This plan, which has been implemented by large corporations such as Johnson and Johnson, offers not only a compromise between the city and its unions, but also has a real chance to cut costs while holding people accountable.

It’s more than reasonable to ask city employees, who receive generous health care paid for by all Chicagoans, to take an active role in their own health. Conditions such as diabetes and heart disease are leading causes for rising costs and are preventable if the right steps are taken. The $50 a month charge is a good incentive to get public employees engaged in helping reduce costs.

Some of the plan’s finer details are questionable, though. The health problems Emanuel named are conditions that develop over a long period of time. It’s surprising to hear that $240 million in savings would be realized in only four years. While it’s obvious that in the long run a healthier workforce will produce lower medical costs, the mayor’s initial estimate seems a bit optimistic. Enhanced screenings, coaches, gym time and nutrition plans all cost money. The mayor needs to identify these costs and how they offset the eventual savings.

If Emanuel’s calculations are correct and the wellness plan can be efficiently implemented and monitored, then this would be a blessing for the cash-strapped city. It’s time public servants start engaging in the dialogue on deficit reduction instead of fighting it, and the city’s unions deserve credit for doing so.