Town on the path to wellness

Town of Mount Pleasant officials and employees trek on the sidewalk along Coleman Boulevard near the foot of the Arthur Ravenel Bridge Jr. on Wednesday. The lunchtime walk from Town Hall to the bridge and back is part of the town's new wellness and benefi

MOUNT PLEASANT — Town building and grounds worker Tim Jordan took a first step toward losing 38 pounds Wednesday when he joined 72 fellow employees for a two-mile walk to the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge and back.

"Trying to get rid of that belly. Instead of eating for lunch, I'm walking," Jordan said, patting his stomach. He wants to slim down to 220 pounds. "Gotta start somewhere, so this is where I'm starting."

The event was part of a new town initiative to promote a healthy lifestyle for employees. Town Administrator Mac Burdette said in a flier distributed to workers that the cost of providing benefits is expected to rise 28 percent in the next three years.

"We do not want to change our benefits but may be forced to do so in the future. Instead of making benefit changes, we want our employees to enter our new wellness and benefit programs," he said. Program goals include increased health awareness, saving lives and reducing expenses, he said.

Howard Duvall, Municipal Association of South Carolina executive director, said the town's initiative is part of a trend to cut down on rapidly rising insurance costs. "To keep an employee well is a lot cheaper," Duvall said.

The city of Charleston began its illness-prevention program two years ago. The city pays for Weight Watchers programs and helps cover gym memberships. A full-time registered nurse coordinates the program and does screenings for blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes. Because of the program's success, the city budgeted $800,000 less for health care last year, and no premium increases were passed on to employees, Communications Director Barbara Vaughn said.

Charleston County is revitalizing its program. It includes discounts on Weight Watchers, a wellness Web page and newsletter and an annual $50,000 health fair, Human Resources Manager Maria Rapchick said. She said the county wants to start a walking program.

North Charleston Police Chief Jon Zumalt said recently that he wants to use his position as president of a national law-enforcement group to increase awareness among police about healthy eating and exercise. Zumalt said obesity in law enforcement is a significant problem, particularly among middle-age officers.

On Wednesday, the Mount Pleasant walkers assembled at Town Hall, where Mayor Harry Hallman quipped, "If Prevention Magazine was in town, we would invite them to walk with us." The April issue of the magazine labeled the town one of the worst places in the country for walking.

With a police escort, the group walked briskly through Harbor Pointe Apartments to Magrath Darby Boulevard and across Coleman Boulevard to the bridge.

Leading the way was Councilman Gary Santos, whose father died of a heart attack at age 44. "It's really important," he said of the wellness program. Employees will feel better, work better and use fewer sick days, he said.

So far, 462 out of 600 town employees have signed up, which entitles them to a 20 percent reduction on health insurance premiums. Starting in May, a Town Hall Wellness Clinic will have a nurse practitioner to handle physicals, lab work, health risk assessments, illness and injuries and write prescriptions.