Maryland bill encourages healthiness, at a cost

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Local,Maryland,Andy Brownfield

ANNAPOLIS -- A group of Maryland lawmakers want state employees to be healthier. That's why they have introduced a bill to give state workers incentives to take actions like exercise more, eat healthier and get regular health assessments.

While the long-term goal would be to save the state money in health care payments, analysts say the House legislation would require big up-front costs and wouldn't guarantee savings.

The bill would direct the state to implement a so-called wellness program that offers incentives like discounted health care premiums or waivers for deductibles and co-pays if employees participate in healthy behavior. The goal, said sponsor Del. Susan Krebs, R-Carroll County, would be to save the state money in the long run by reducing what it pays for employee health care.

"First we have to ask ourselves, is our state workforce healthy? And how much do we spend on health care costs for our employees and their dependents and our retirees? And what is the trend for health care costs? Up or down?" Krebs asked before the House Appropriations and Health and Government Operations committees.

"Most measures would indicate that our workforce is not necessarily healthy, and it's costing our state a lot in health care costs and productivity and also just mental health wellness of our employees," she said.

The goal of such a program would be to improve the general wellness of an employee to avoid the type of catastrophic illness or injury that would cost the state insurance program the most.

However, the legislature's own analysts aren't sure such a program would save the state any money.

"Expenditures for the state plan increase by a significant amount in [fiscal year] 2014 to develop and implement a bona fide wellness program," Senior Policy Analyst Jennifer B. Chasse wrote in an analysis for the legislature.

"In future years, savings generated by the program may exceed expenditures."

Chasse notes that it is impossible to estimate what it would cost to set up and run such a program.

The state is the second-largest employer of Marylanders, behind the federal government. More than 110,000 state employees, retirees and their families rely on taxpayer-funded health care.

At least 20 states have wellness programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Many of those programs begin with a health screening or assessment, which focuses on things such as body mass index, cholesterol, whether an employee smokes and the employee's level of physical activity.

Many plans offer health insurance discounts or cash as an incentive for employees to participate. Chasse notes in her analysis that the Department of Budget and Management determined that cash incentives would be the most effective.

abrownfield@washingtonexaminer.com

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Andy Brownfield

Examiner Staff Writer
The Washington Examiner