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City Employee Wellness Initiative Cuts Pounds, Health Care Costs

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Copyright 2013 South Bend Tribune Corporation
All Rights Reserved

South Bend Tribune (Indiana)
November 3, 2013 Sunday
Mich Edition
WIRE; Pg. D1
631 words
City wellness effort cuts pounds
Kristen Jordan Shamus, Detroit Free Press (MCT)

One year ago, 30 Ferndale, Mich., city workers began to change their lives ounce by ounce.

Today, they are 1,052 1/2 pounds lighter, and they're saving the city big bucks - an estimated $131,000 this year alone - in health care costs.

City Clerk Cherilynn Brown dropped 17 pounds, and no longer has knee pain that kept her from doing the things she loves. Now that she's at her goal weight, she was able to go biking pain-free with her son on a recent vacation.

Ferndale police detective John Thul lost almost 60 pounds, and doesn't worry that he's going to have a stroke or aneurysm because of unmanageably high blood pressure.

"I work out about an hour and a half every day. I am actually stronger now and fitter now than when I went to the police academy," he said.

Increasingly, employers are turning to wellness programs like the city of Ferndale's to boost the health of their workers, reduce obesity and conditions brought on by a sedentary lifestyle, hoping the efforts will lower the ever-rising cost of their health care premiums, said Caroline Richardson, a researcher and associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Michigan.

Jenny Longthorne, the city's human resources director, hoped that by starting a health initiative for city workers and their dependents, she could shave some costs from rising insurance expenses.

"In union negotiations, we've kind of hit a plateau with our medical plan. We've made some changes to it and employees are like, 'OK, how much more can you possibly do?' And so we agreed that we wouldn't make changes. But in lieu of that, we still had to see some savings of some kind," Longthorne said. "So we thought we might be able to do it in wellness on the back end, and assume some savings. We thought wellness would be a good way to start."

Wellness efforts range from weight-loss programs to discounts on gym memberships to asking employees to upload data from a pedometer to a computer to track how many steps they take each day.

"There's a cultural shift going on where people are being asked to take responsibility for their health and take on some of the cost burden. There are issues around ethics that are just beginning to be explored with these programs, and there are protections within the law," Richardson said.

"There are a number of things we have to think about when we consider these broad, sweeping changes in health care across the country," she said. "The burden of these chronic conditions associated with obesity, a sedentary lifestyle and a poor diet is really making a big impact on health care costs and morbidity."

Cecile Thompson, an accountant for Ferndale, shed 99 pounds - going from a size 20 to a size 12. She doesn't have to shop in plus-size stores anymore to find clothes that fit.

Although she looks like a different person compared with photos from a year ago, it's arguably Cecile's husband, Bob Thompson, who is most transformed.

At 279 pounds, he was on oxygen and was recovering from two prior heart attacks and a stroke when he signed up for the city-sponsored Weight Watchers at Work program in September 2012.

Now he's 34 pounds lighter and no longer needs an oxygen tank to breathe. He doesn't need as much blood pressure medication, and is hopeful he can drop his cholesterol medicine in the near future.

"I was ready to give up; I was," said Bob Thompson, 56. "I thought it was imminent; put me 6 feet under.

"But now I have a whole new outlook on life. I never thought I'd get my wedding ring back on. It was five years that darn thing sat on my key ring, and I've got it on now. You can't have another wedding ring. There's only the one you get married in.

"I'm wearing size 36 pants, no more stretch pants. I'm happy. I am."

Distributed by MCT Information Services

November 5, 2013

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