Finessing the high cost of health care

Controlling escalating costs may be as simple as putting healthier, happier officers on the road

      Containment of health care costs isn't a new issue. In fact, governments ranging from small town boards to gargantuan federal agencies currently struggle to find ways to alleviate the escalating cost of health coverage at a time when a large, aging population threatens to overwhelm the system.

   The answer, some believe, lies in a uniform system, much like the ones employed by Canada and the United Kingdom but that option has been vastly unpopular with many Americans. Others advocate reining in hospital and pharmacy costs, tort reform and punitive measures aimed at the overweight and smokers. And while no single measure garners unanimous support, everyone agrees it's time to do something.

   The question is, what? And what exactly can law enforcement agencies caught up in local budget crunches do to help bring down the expenses associated with covering their officers and civilian personnel?

   This may seem like a rhetorical question, but it's really not. There are numerous things an agency can do to improve the overall health of agency employees, which results in a lowered use of medical benefits. And while that might not be enough to stem the tide of rising premiums, it can't hurt. Plus, the agency gets the benefit of fitter, healthier employees.

   Turning employees to the bright side isn't rocket fuel science. Mostly, it's investing in wellness and other programs designed to help them change bad habits into good. The real problem most law enforcement administrators face is getting everyone to buy into it. And that takes determination, the ability to ignore the inevitable complaints and most important of all, a plan of attack.

Wellness programs work wonders

   HealthMedia, a private company that provides digital health coaching, says it combines behavioral science with technology. According to company spokeswoman Caren Kenney, a wellness and prevention program must be supported by upper management and address both the individual and the organization as a whole; be comprehensive and address "the full spectrum of need from wellness to behavior health and diseases management," she says.

   Law enforcement officers are suspicious of change and don't like it for the most part. Getting them to willingly participate can be a challenge. She recommends overcoming that challenge by offering appropriate incentives. Privacy is another concern.

   Since HealthMedia uses a Web-based coaching program, which also offers a high degree of privacy to participants; those who take part can do so when it works for them. For individuals whose work days can start at 2 a.m. or 8 p.m. and who often work call duty, rotating or 12-hour shifts, receiving coaching or feedback on their own schedule is a big plus. A personalized program is designed for each participant based on factors such as individual needs, interests and challenges, Kenney says.

   "Health care premiums are expected to swell 8.9 percent in 2009 — well above inflation and salary increases. As organizations examine their budgets, the temptation to reduce or diminish funding for health programs is great. However, most recognize the urgency to promote healthy behaviors through wellness, chronic conditions management and behavioral health programming to reduce both direct and indirect health care costs," she explains.

   Wellness programs work by shifting the focus from treatment to prevention. The evidence strongly suggests wellness programs work and work well when done the right way. According to Kenney and other experts, wellness programs have changed a lot since the days of in-service training when a public health nurse lectured to a mostly tuned-out class of officers on the benefits of 8 hours of sleep (see Page 58 for tips on improving sleep and reducing stress).

   While wellness programs are an integral part of keeping employees healthy, Kenney says it works best when coupled with prevention.

   "Behavior change is the only way to ensure a sustainably healthy organization," Kenney says.

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