Wellness program launched to improve employee health in Hancock, Washington counties

Posted Nov. 30, 2011, at 9:53 p.m.

ELLSWORTH, Maine — Maine Coast Memorial Hospital and the Ellsworth Area Chamber of Commerce have launched a “wellness” pilot program aimed at helping Hancock County businesses lower their insurance costs by improving employee health.

Fifteen businesses employing more than 400 people have signed up so far for the “True Health Wellness Program,” which offers assistance developing a workplace health program catered to their type of business and the specific needs of their employees.

The idea behind workplace wellness programs is simple: by encouraging employees to live healthier lifestyles through both increased awareness and workplace programs, businesses can reduce their own insurance costs.

Program features can range from simple workplace changes, such as placing fruit bowls or water bottles in or near the always-popular vending machines, to offering employees cash rewards or other incentives to join a gym or lose weight. Many employers also bring health professionals to the workplace to help employees track their progress.

Heather Fowler, director of employee wellness at Maine Coast Memorial, said businesses have been contacting the hospital for several years seeking advice on ways to start employee health programs due to skyrocketing insurance costs. The hospital launched its own wellness program in June, offering cash incentives to employees who participate.

“Our goal is to engage employees in their own health care,” Fowler said.

In October, the hospital formally launched the “True Health” pilot program in conjunction with the Ellsworth-area chamber and Healthy Acadia, a nonprofit health awareness group serving Hancock and Washington counties. Although limited to 15 businesses during the pilot stage, the groups plan to open the program to any interested Chamber of Commerce member in Hancock County next October.

“We want to see this through and to see people become healthier,” said Micki Sumpter, executive director of the Ellsworth Area Chamber. “And it will help the bottom line of businesses.”

As part of the program, Fowler and Kelly Corson, the community health coordinator at Healthy Acadia, will visit each business with a nurse and will work with them to develop a program tailored to their individual needs. Participating employees will undergo health screenings to help them develop individual goals as well as identify potential health risks.

In addition to obvious programs encouraging employees to eat healthier and get more exercise both at work and at home, many wellness programs also have components aimed at helping employees deal with stress caused by family or economic issues. The True Health Wellness Program also encourages regular, at-work health checkups as well as special programs.

“We want more businesses to go tobacco-free and for businesses to bring in more smoking cessation programs,” Fowler added.

Participating businesses will pay $30 per employee to cover the costs of the screenings and setting up the program. But Sumpter pointed out that a $4,500 grant for the program from Camden National Bank can be used to offset those costs for qualified businesses.

Stanley Subaru in Ellsworth is one of the 15 businesses that signed onto the pilot program.

Mark Politte, Stanley Subaru’s owner, said planning for the car dealership’s wellness program is still in the early stages. But the company has already mapped out a walking trail in the woods behind the facility where employees — or customers getting their cars serviced — can exercise and relax. Additionally, Politte said that thanks to the discussion surrounding the wellness program, they are swapping the donuts often served at staff meetings for fruit, instant oatmeal and low-fat muffins.

Politte said the packaged presentation offered by the program will enable his company to develop a wellness program much faster and much more comprehensively than they could have without assistance.

“I think the most powerful element of this is the support and discussion it has created,” Politte said, adding the company is trying to celebrate employees’ healthy choices.

Both Fowler and Sumpter acknowledged that the challenge with any health program is ensuring it doesn’t become another fad.

“We have to make sure it is innovative, fun and interesting and that it doesn’t get old,” Sumpter said.

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