Employers continue to embrace the use of wellness programs as a strategy to create a healthier workforce and lower their health care costs over time.

A whopping 98% of large firms (with 200 or more workers) and 73% of smaller firms (with less than 200 workers) are offering at least one wellness program this year, according to a study released last week by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research & Educational Trust.

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“Wellness is a cornerstone to good health and lower cost overall,” says Maulik Joshi, president of the Health Research & Educational Trust and senior vice president of research at the American Hospital Association. “Since 2009, more firms both large and small are offering wellness programs, and more firms are offering incentives to encourage wellness.”

Under the Affordable Care Act, employers may increase an employee's premium contribution up to 30% of the cost of the health plan for not completing wellness programs, as long as the wellness program is reasonably designed and there are alternatives for workers who cannot meet the standard.

Companies seem fairly pleased with the impact that the incentives are having. At least 14% of all firms that provide incentives to participate in a wellness program said the incentives are very effective, and 36% said they are somewhat effective, the survey found.

Joshi added, “Employers are moving toward programs that raise the bar for everyone in terms of health.”

The most common wellness programs are:

  • flu shots (87% of large firms),
  • employee assistance programs (79%),
  • online resources for healthy living (77%),
  • smoking cessation programs (64%), and
  • gym membership discounts or on-site exercise facilities (64%).

To encourage workers to sign up for wellness programs, some employers offer financial incentives, such as cash, gift cards, lower employee premium contributions, or higher employer contributions to a health savings account or health reimbursement arrangement. Non-monetary incentives include flextime, paid time off, a prime parking space, merchandise or verbal recognition.
In fact, among the employers that offer wellness programs, 36% provide incentives to employees who participate, and 12% require employees to complete the program to earn the incentive, the study showed. Among the employers that provide the opportunity to complete a health risk assessment, 51% give a financial incentive to those who do so.

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