As health care costs increase, University employees try to save

The University is offering premium reductions using a point system.

Hailey Colwell

With health care costs set to rise as the University of Minnesota prepares to comply with the Affordable Care Act, employees are looking for ways to reduce their health care premiums.

One way to reduce the amount employees have to pay for coverage is by participating in the University Wellness Program, which awards points for completing healthy activities. If employees earn enough points, they can save up to $400 on their premiums per year.

But despite rising costs, the program is changing its marketing strategy to focus less on potential savings and more on what employees can get out of being healthy, according to the Office of Human Resources.

Reducing employees’ premiums if they participate in wellness activities is a good investment on the University’s part because it increases employee morale and retention, said Connie Magnuson, director of the University’s Recreation, Park and Leisure Studies program.

Magnuson said although money may be the primary motivator for participation, it’s a step in the right direction because it can prevent employees from incurring long-term health care costs.

“If that’s what gets people out and tying their running shoes on,” she said, “then that’s what it takes.”

Finance v. fitness

Employees who participate in the program say they appreciate the health benefits, but the savings are a bigger motivator.

University horticulture researcher Andrew Hollman said he records the number of steps he takes each day for the Wellness Program’s walking program. His labor-intensive job requires a lot of walking, he said, and he can rack up points easily that way.

Hollman, who has two kids, said working out in a gym doesn’t fit his lifestyle — plus, University faculty and staff members have to pay to use recreational
facilities.

Although he values a healthy lifestyle, Hollman said the program’s greatest incentive is its potential to reduce his health care premium.

“If you really need the wellness,” he said, “you’re gonna be looking for wellness regardless of whether or not the University’s offering it.”

Kinesiology lecturer Nicole LaVoi said she already lives healthy, and logging into an online account — which is required to earn points — is “burdensome” for her.

“Wellness is a lifestyle,” she said. “It shouldn’t be a program.”

LaVoi said she takes part in the Wellness Program because of the financial benefits — which will likely become more important once the University’s new health care costs are implemented, she said.

Because her job requires sitting down and reading for most of the day, University Press copy editor Nancy Sauro said she tries to exercise outside of work, but it’s hard to find the time.

Sauro said she participates in the walking program to get wellness points but doesn’t see any other reason to count her steps because she can’t fit more walking into her schedule.

In the past, the University gave cash bonuses to employees who participated in wellness-based programs, Sauro said.

Now, “it feels like you’re being penalized if you don’t get enough points,” she said.

Although it’s important for the University to promote healthy practices, Sauro said, the motivation to adopt those practices still comes from the individual.

“The University can make it easier,” she said, “but they can’t make you do it.”