Lee employees jump on wellness bandwagon

LEESBURG, Ga. -- The bad news: Lee County's governmental employees are not in the best of health.

The good news: They are getting healthier every day.

For example, as a group they have lost 600 pounds over the past 12 weeks. The well-being of the county's employees came into the spotlight recently as Lee County commissioners received a report on the new wellness program from its benefits consultant.

County Manager Tony Massey said the Lee County Commission decided about a year ago to implement a wellness program for two reasons.

Most important, Massey said, is the health of county workers. Secondly, the commission is seeking to find the best way to control costs for the mostly self-funded county insurance plan.

Commissioners allocated $75,000 to finance the program. Massey got with Chad Slaughter, vice president of J Smith Lanier, his health insurance adviser, to get the program under way.

A 12-week Risk Reduction Program was initiated and conducted by Community-Y Health Network.

Lee had 211 employees participate in the initial screening. Testing determined 147 of them, 67.8 percent, were at high risk.

While that number seems unusually high, Massey said insurance experts say that is about normal for a municipality.

"It could be things such as being a tobacco user, or having an elevated blood pressure," Massey said.

The unique thing about Lee County's program, Massey said, is what happened after the initial screening.

"We looked at how do we change their behavior," Slaughter said. "Once identified in Lee County as high risk, they were given the opportunity to participate in a 12-week onsite health coaching program.

"We had a licensed dietitian meet one-on-one with anyone who requested a meeting."

Coaches Susan Nelson and Michael Sauls were onsite during this 12-week program meeting with the 149 employees who opted to participate.

Nelson said 57.3 of participants met the standards for obesity while 28 percent were classified as overweight.

Seventy percent of the participants have lost weight since joining the program, an average of six pounds per employee. The weight loss total for the group is more than 600 pounds.

Waist circumference is a key measurement for predicting future health problems. Initially, 71 percent of the Lee employees had an elevated waist circumference -- 40 inches for males and 35 inches for females.

Nelson reported that 51 percent of the at-risk participants have decreased their waist circumference.

One of the more alarming findings was that five county workers were immediately referred to their physicians because of high blood pressure. The testing shows 13.2 percent of the participants had hypertensive blood pressure (140/90 mm/Hg) and 55.6 percent had pre-hypertensive blood pressure (120/80).

Massey says he was not surprised at the initial reports.

"Our work force pretty much mirrors Southwest Georgia with our share of overweight workers and all the issues that come along with that," Massey said.

Massey said the county obviously hopes to reduce insurance expenses, but that is not the top goal.

"We do it for our employees," Massey said. "We want them to be healthy."

Slaughter said it is difficult to measure how quickly the county will realize the return on their $75,000 investment.

"Typically it takes a couple of years to see the fruits of their labor," Slaughter said. "We've had such a high level of participation that I think we will see some short-term changes in claim costs."

Slaughter said claims submitted this year "are trending flat" which he considers a good sign with health care inflation running about 9 percent.

Massey says the expense can be covered with just one major health incident.

"The moral piece to this is helping the folks that work for the county," Massey said.