Healthy investment

Rachel Varner (left) serves Ron Paquette, CEO of Hubner Manufacturing in Mount Pleasant, in the lunch line. The company started promoting a salad bar instead of fried food for lunch as part of its corporate wellness program.

Hubner Manufacturing was spending $50,000 a month on health insurance premiums for its 90 or so employees.

Then last year, the Mount Pleasant company, which makes parts for trains, found out it faced a 17 percent health care cost spike. Management knew something needed to change.

So human resources started with the lunch line.

The company already provided free lunches for staff every weekday in their on-site cafeteria, but the salad bar used to be an afterthought. Now, it sits prominently out front, beckoning employees to load up on raw carrots, broccoli and tomatoes.

“Before, we used to have some catered lunches that had your soul foods: fried chicken, fried this and fried that. Now, basically, we do not serve anything that is fried,” said Florin Felesco, Hubner’s human resource manager. “Very easy, very uncostly change. It’s just a matter of switching two things around and promoting those salads. Now, a lot of individuals eat salads.”

Felesco has no illusions that this small shift will dramatically reduce the amount the company spends every month on health insurance premiums. But the change, part of Hubner’s new corporate wellness initiative, may pay off in a few years.

“Eventually, yes, of course, at the end of the day, we would like to see lower premiums,” he said. “But you’re not going to be able to see this in a month or two months. It has to be a year, at least, two years. It’s extremely hard to change behaviors.”

Corporate wellness programs aren’t new, but historically, some of them have been considered little more than “fluff” efforts to encourage healthy behavior. No one ever really gauged whether they worked.

Instead, businesses would control health care costs by changing insurance plans. Employees saw their deductibles go up. They were expected to shell out more from their own paychecks for their policies. Their benefits may have been cut back.

The Affordable Care Act, however, has made it increasingly difficult for companies, especially small ones, to save money by tweaking some of these variables. And as business owners stare down ever-mounting health care costs, many of them are looking at corporate wellness as a way to boost morale and achieve real savings.

Education is a big part of it, says Colin Smoak, a benefits consultant in Mount Pleasant. His firm is piloting a 10-part “health care consumerism” program to inform workers how to be savvy shoppers. For example, some of them don’t know that hospitals charge different fees for the same procedures.

Hubner Manufacturing is one of five local businesses that’s participating.

“What we’ve found so far in the test pilot is the employees are very engaged,” Smoak said. “They are learning new things and they are appreciating their employer for offering it.”

Even state agencies and health insurance companies are jumping on the corporate wellness trend.

BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina, for example, recently teamed up with Fitbit for a corporate wellness initiative. Some BlueCross BlueShield corporate clients are now buying, or subsidizing, these activity trackers for their workers and encouraging them to move more.

“It’s not like, all of a sudden, you’re going to see (health care) costs go down overnight,” said Matt Shaffer, a BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina vice president. “We’re trying to make investments in people’s health and wellness, as well as be there for their financial security when they do get ill or have an injury.”

Giving BlueCross BlueShield members more data through their Fitbits — showing them how much they move and eat, and how well they sleep at night — may positively influence healthy behavior, he said.

But Fitbits and similar “wearable” devices, even at a discounted price, are expensive. The state health department recently launched a low-cost wellness program called “Working Well.”

The initiative was piloted by the South Carolina Hospital Association to make hospitals, and now state work sites, healthier.

Eliminating tobacco and promoting healthy choices in vending machines are two ways “Working Well” is trying to change workplace culture.

Gov. Nikki Haley’s office, her 16 cabinet agencies, the Department of Mental Health and the Department of Health and Environmental Control have signed on to participate. More than 35,000 state employees work at these agencies.

“We were looking for low- or no-cost activities or policies we could implement,” said Jennifer Read, DHEC’s public health outreach director. “There are ways you can approach this without spending a lot of money.”

For its part, Hubner Manufacturing is taking small steps toward corporate wellness. Felesco said they’d rather do a few things well than roll out too many programs that employees don’t want.

“You can have so many programs, but at the end of the day, if none of the employees want to participate in it, it’s truly a waste of time,” he said.

So far, on top of the health care consumerism classes and the lunch line changes, Hubner has offered discounted gym memberships at East Shore Athletic Club. Nine workers have signed up.

Smoking cessation is another tenet of Hubner’s wellness program, even though Felesco acknowledged it will be difficult to encourage employees to quit. Many of these entrenched behaviors, including unhealthy eating and an aversion to exercise, seem like they’re insurmountable, he said.

“Sometimes you’ll never be able to change a behavior,” he said. “It’s an addiction. You have to have those steps to wean someone from the addiction. It’s not going to happen just because I give you $50.”

Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.