Saving money on health care: Chicago to institute new wellness plan for city employees

In a time of increasingly tight municipal budgets, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a wellness plan for city employees that will use incentives to save up to $240 million in health costs over the next four years. Following a model used in private industry for some time, the City will soon implement a policy where workers will see their health insurance premiums rise by $50 unless they choose to take part in a program to manage chronic health problems.

“It’s a good public health strategy. …We cannot afford the standard we’re on…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,” states Mayor Emanuel in a Chicago Sun-Times article. “It’s a carrot-and-stick approach. It’s not just one approach. …You make incentives clear enough that the individual realizes that good health care is the right road for them. It’s not one tactic. It’s a multipronged approach.”

The program would begin by offering employees and their dependents screening and wellness training to establish long-term health goals such as weight loss, exercise, and smoking cessation. Coaches will assist and monitor employees to make sure they stay on their assigned health and wellness regimen.

Currently, Chicago taxpayers spend $500 million a year providing health care to city workers—nearly ten percent of the city’s annual budget. If successful, the wellness program would reduce this cost by twelve percent.

There is reason for Emanuel to be optimistic about the outcome of the new policy. King County, Washington instituted a similar wellness plan for county employees six years ago. To date, smoking among employees has declined by 40% and 2,000 employees have lost a total of 24 tons of weight. This year, the county will save $23 million in health care costs—a reduction of over ten percent. For more, see the article in The Seattle Times.