Ensuring wellbeing: UMN program lowers costs for healthy choices

More employees than ever are participating in the Wellbeing Program, but some are still on the fence.

Robin Schow helps Brian Barnett to prepare soup at an employee wellness program on Monday, Feb. 25 at McNeal Hall in St. Paul.

Jasmin Kemp

Robin Schow helps Brian Barnett to prepare soup at an employee wellness program on Monday, Feb. 25 at McNeal Hall in St. Paul.

by Jake Steinberg

The smell of freshly cut garlic fills the busy lab as it wafts into the halls of McNeal Hall.

Chicken broth churns in shining steel pots. Every once in a while, there’s the plop of a potato tossed into steamy yellow brine. 

This Monday, it’s soup night. If employees complete a series of four cooking lessons, they’ll bring home more than just leftovers. They’ll be 150 points closer to a smaller health insurance premium.

Participation in the University of Minnesota’s Wellbeing Program has never been higher, and its participants’ health risks are at an all-time low. Despite the Office of Human Resources broadening opportunities to earn points, some question if the program is accessible to all employees and whether the benefits of giving up health data are worth potential costs.

The Wellbeing Program rewards University employees for making healthy lifestyle choices with points that equate to dollars off their health insurance premiums. Getting a flu shot: $25. Face-to-face health coaching: $250. 

The program is offered as part of the employee UPlan Medical Program. Employees can earn up to $500 for themselves, or $750 if their spouse is covered under their plan. OHR began offering incentives in 2011, and participation has grown since, hitting a record high in 2018. 

The program is facilitated by RedBrick Health, which markets its services as a win-win: healthy employees cost less for the University to insure. Though OHR says the program’s focus is on employee well-being, not cost savings. Data from the program shows health risks — like alcohol use and stress — decreased among participants.

“Cooking is an important step to well-being,” said Robin Schow, who teaches the well-being cooking class. “It does change people’s minds. It’s like planting the seed.”

However, some worry the program isn’t accessible to employees with limited resources. Employees receive a 50 percent reimbursement for qualifying classes. Schow says her $170 class can feel “elite.” Many participants are administrators or researchers. Participation among lower-paid workers is not very high, she said.

OHR recently updated its menu of programs to encompass not just physical health, but also financial, social and mental health.

“We took the needs of all of our employees into consideration when we updated the program last year,” Ken Horstman, senior director of Total Compensation at OHR wrote in an email to the Minnesota Daily. There are now more online programs and ways to earn points through community involvement, like volunteering.

Gail Myers, director of the Disability Resource Center at the Crookston campus, said she can earn all her points from home now. Myers, who has a disability, does financial literacy phone coaching, and logs healthy lifestyle choices like eating breakfast or getting enough sleep.

Employees on satellite campuses have complained they don’t have access to the fitness classes offered at the Twin Cities campus, like kettlebell and yoga classes. 

“Even though we don’t have all those classes up here, we can still find a way to get the points,” Myers said.

Biometric health screenings are convenient and worth many points. But the health data they assess — like blood pressure, BMI and cholesterol — is sensitive. Some employees are wary their health data could end up in the wrong hands.

RedBrick Health’s privacy policy says they don’t share protected health information. Because its services are offered through the University’s medical plan, the collected data is protected under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA.

Horstman said the University receives only aggregate data from RedBrick. But many privacy experts say anonymized data isn’t as secure as people think.

“There’s no such thing as anonymized. You take three anonymized data sets and cross-reference them and you can usually identify individuals,” said Nancy Sims, a copyright librarian at the University with a background in data privacy law. “Even if all you share is aggregate data, most aggregate data can be de-aggregated really quickly.”

In a 2010 law review of anonymous data, Georgetown Law professor Paul Ohm wrote that “no useful database can ever be perfectly anonymous, and as the utility of data increases, the privacy decreases.”

Sims, a senator in the Professional and Administrative Senate at the University, said that within her constituency, a lot of people “have privacy concerns, but they participate anyway because they can’t afford the extra money on their health insurance premiums.”

For some, the perceived risks are worth the rewards. 

Sarah Waldemar, director of the Research Compliance Office, happily sipped her soup. 150 points. She did the biometric screening. 150 points. She doesn’t bike commute though, which is worth up to 200 points. “Riding a bike on campus is way too scary,” she said.