HERO On Health is the monthly newsletter of the nonprofit Health Enhancement Research Organization, based in Edina, Minnesota. Benson discussed the success of the 10-year-old Get Healthy Now employee wellness program. The following is reprinted with permission from HERO.


HERO Member Profile: University of Louisville

May 2015

For this issue of HERO On Health, we interviewed Patricia Benson, M.Ed., health management director of the University of Louisville’s “Get Healthy Now” employee wellness program. The University of Louisville has three campuses and more than 6,500 employees, and 9,000 covered lives in its employee benefit program. The University works with Health Fitness Corporation as its wellness program partner.

Before “Get Healthy Now” launched in 2005, the University of Louisville’s health care costs were well above the national average. The wellness program was introduced as a voluntary, incentive-based program with four primary goals:

1. Nurture a culture of health

2. Incent and engage employees as part of a total rewards program

3. Contain health care costs

4. Decelerate the rate of increase in overall cost of coverage

Now in its 10th year, “Get Healthy Now” and the University of Louisville has been recognized with local and national awards for wellness program success, including:

  • CUPA-HR (College and University Professional Association for Human Resources) National and Regional Award
  • American Heart Association’s Platinum Fit Friendly Award
  • Business First’s 2010 “Healthiest Employer of Louisville” Award (for 5,000+ employees)
  • Mayor’s Health Hometown Movement “Veteran Worksite Wellness Award”

Most recently, James Ramsey, University of Louisville president, received the HERO Jerry Noyce Executive Health Champion Award in 2014 for his dedication to health and corporate performance and for exemplifying leadership commitment to employee health.

HERO ON Health asked Benson what drives the “Get Healthy Now” program and about their success.

HERO: What have been the keys to your success in creating an effective employee health management program?

Benson: It starts at the top level of leadership. When Dr. Ramsey, our president, got a wake up call from his doctor about his cholesterol and overall health, he called me into his office and said, “I want to set the example.” He liked to jog, so he began to host weekly three-mile ‘jogs with the president.’ He literally walked the get-healthy talk, which has made all the difference in cutting through bureaucracy and getting the entire leadership team on board, and in showing employees that this program is for everyone. As he often says, “Our most valuable assets are our employees.”

Strong leadership support is one of four tactics we use at the University of Louisville. We also focus on removing silos through partnership, engagement with campus and community constituents through alignment of mutual goals, and integrating health and disease management strategies (data collection, analysis and marketing).

One of the reasons we’ve been successful is that we didn’t try to do everything at once. The initial program included an online health risk assessment, health coaching for moderate- and high-risk employees and a $20 premium incentive ($240 per year) for employees to participate. The first-year participation rate was 50 percent. Health and wellness checks and classes were offered along with access to an employee fitness facility.

Claims data helped us identify diabetes and later, COPD, as opportunities to support employees in better dealing with their chronic condition. Next, we’re getting ready to launch a mental health initiative. As we uncovered our top three lifestyle cost drivers – obesity, stress and lack of physical activity – new program options and classes were launched. Weigh to Wellness and Walk to Run are just two of a wide range of options that employees have found to be life changing.

The fitness center has also been a big draw for employees. The University of Louisville Foundation and University of Louisville Athletics funded a $1.3 million renovation that expanded the facility from 2,000 to 22,000 square feet. The “Get Healthy Now” Wellness Center extends our ‘cardinal family’ wellness commitment to the community, to our alumni, and to the hospital and physician groups.

As we built momentum and began to see lower health costs for participants, we doubled the premium incentive to $40 ($480 per year) in 2009. Participation jumped from 50 to 70 percent – and since then, we’ve maintained at least that level. Our strategy is to engage and reward.

HERO: When you look at your program, what results or outcomes do you feel are the most significant?

Benson: Wellness isn’t a short-term fix; it’s the long-term solution. But we knew we needed to deliver an ROI analysis to leadership.

At the end of four years of the program, annual health care costs for participating employees had increased by 2.5 percent. Meanwhile, costs increased 19.5 percent for nonparticipants. The program was working, and the University realized an annual savings of $1 million dollars in health care-related expenses. We had taken an under-performing asset (our health plan) and turned it around. For every $1 invested in the program, we were getting $3 back.

When we did another analysis four years later in 2012, the results were even better. For every $1 invested, there was a $7 return. We learned that the longer employees were in the program, the higher the return.

In November 2013, the University of Louisville adopted a “living wage” program, increasing the minimum salary for all regular staff employees to $10 per hour. This was possible in part because of the significant health plan savings realized through the “Get Healthy Now” program. We’ve moved beyond return on investment to what we call “value to employees.” It feels good to know that we’re a part of this step forward.

HERO: What lessons or tips can you share with other companies who strive to improve employee health?

Benson: Building employee trust is a critical requirement for long-term success, and I think sometimes that gets lost in the outcomes-based approach. It’s the difference between developing a program that points a finger, without looking at the environment, and says ‘get healthy now or else,’ and a program that puts an arm around the person, engages them in the process of change, and says ‘we’re in this with you.’

Having that trust makes it possible to look at all the barriers to health and well being, but it requires listening to employees. When we first launched our telephonic coaching program, we heard employees say they were frustrated talking with a different coach each time they called. They wanted a dedicated online health coach – and so we made that change. Today, we actually hear people say, “That is my wellness program” when referring to “Get Healthy Now.” We champion their individual successes in monthly newsletters and on our website [http://louisville.edu/gethealthynow].

The University of Louisville has moved the “wellness conversation” beyond economics, which is something that I’d encourage other companies and organizations to work towards as their programs mature. We’re aligning our wellness program strategies with the University’s overall research, teaching and service mission. This is the way we’ll recruit, retain, recognize and reward a high-performing work force going forward.

Janet Cappiello covers student success for the Office of Communications and Marketing. She has more than 30 years’ experience in journalism, including working for The Associated Press and magazines such as Vegetarian Times and Sustainability: The Journal of Record. She has been at UofL since 2014.