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(The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz) The Maryland Athletic Club offers multiple corporate wellness programs, tailored to each firm’s goals.

Md. companies place a priority on employees’ health

Come January, accounting firm Ellin & Tucker will stop footing the bill for its employees’ junk food cravings. The company isn’t getting greedy — it’s getting smart, according to managing director Edwin Brake.

Instead of the usual office-kitchen staples — pizza, doughnuts, bagels — the Baltimore firm will start supplying healthy options like salads, lean proteins and fruit.

More employers across the state are unveiling new health and wellness initiatives, or expanding existing ones, in an effort to fight back against rising health care costs while maximizing the benefits of a healthier, fitter workforce.

“We’ve absolutely been seeing more interest, especially with the Affordable Care Act influencing medical expenses,” said Maria Yanson, the corporate and medical director for the Maryland Athletic Club & Wellness Center. “Companies are looking to put in more effort than we’ve ever seen before, and we’ve been doing [corporate wellness] for about 10 years.”

(The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz) The Maryland Athletic Club's  most popular program is Healthy Start, a 60-day pass for unlimited access to the three MAC locations. Pictured, people exercise in a Zumba class at the Timonium location.

(The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz) The Maryland Athletic Club’s most popular program is Healthy Start, a 60-day pass for unlimited access to the three MAC locations. Pictured, people exercise in a Zumba class at the Timonium location.

Incentivizing employees to exercise or eat healthier can not only help keep medical insurance costs in check, several executives said, but can contribute to improved employee morale, higher productivity, less absenteeism and enhanced goodwill toward management.

For Ellin & Tucker, revamping the menu is just the beginning, but it’s a critical first step.

During accountants’ busy season, employees eat many of their meals at the office, Brake said, so there’s the potential to make a real difference in their health. The firm provides breakfast every Saturday and Sunday, plus dinner at least two nights a week.

Then there’s the snack cart.

“A couple afternoons a week, we’ll roll around a snack bar,” Brake said. “Usually it was ice cream and cookies, but now it will be different snacks — granola bars and that kind of thing.”

“It’s not just about the cost of health care, but the loss of productivity, especially during busy season,” Brake said. “We’ve got critical deadlines to meet, and if someone is sick that impacts our ability to effectively serve the customer.”

Brake said he doesn’t expect the changes will actually reduce the firm’s health care costs but that they’ll help control future increases.

“I don’t know that I’m going to save any money, but I’m trying to prevent the magnitude of the increases I’ve been seeing over the past few years — 20 percent, 35 percent increases,” he said. “When you extrapolate that out over a five-year period, they’re just astronomical numbers.”

Charlie Monk, managing partner of Saul Ewing LLP, agreed. His law firm is one of six companies participating in “CEOs Stopping Diabetes,” a program launched by the Maryland chapter of the American Diabetes Association and the Greater Baltimore Committee. Other area firms participating are Audacious Inquiry, RCM&D, T. Rowe Price, Keswick Multi-Care and Bon Secours Baltimore Health System.

The leaders of each company encourage employees to participate in a variety of activities, such as stair-climbing challenges or nutrition education sessions.

“We had a lot of fun with it this year,” Monk said. “I think it brought these issues to the forefront, and I think it’s terrific that the ADA is getting business leaders in our town thinking about these issues.”

At Medifast, a nutrition and weight loss company based in Owings Mills, health and wellness of employees has been a focus for the firm since it launched in the mid-1980s. In the past seven years the company has adopted a more formalized program, according to Jeanne Uphouse, executive vice president of Human Resources at Medifast.

“We really try to practice what we preach,” she said.

That includes providing opportunities for Medifast’s 800 employees to improve and maintain their health, such as offering a free gym with yoga and boot camp classes. Employees are able to work out before, during and after work, and there are free weekly personal training sessions.

Uphouse said that employees also have access to Medifast programs and free food and nutrition counseling.

In November, Medifast launched a program, Best Spot in the Lot, which encourages employees not to look for the closest parking space in order to get extra exercise.

“For us, the biggest benefit is to help employees improve their overall health,” Uphouse said. “If you invest in wellness, it really does increase your opportunities for recruiting and retention.”

Long-term, she said, the company expects to see a decrease in its health care expenses.

“The employees love it, and we do believe it improves their engagement with the company,” she said. “If employees are engaged, they are healthier and there is a financial benefit to employees in the end.”

Other wellness initiatives focus primarily on getting employees into the doctor’s office, rather than creating fun opportunities. The state of Maryland, for example, will begin a mandatory program next year for all employees (and their spouses) covered by the state’s health insurance.

Among other things, the state will require beneficiaries to complete a health risk assessment with their physician and, for some people, participate in a chronic disease management program. Employees who refuse to participate will pay a penalty.

Most private companies, however, are opting for voluntary wellness programs. The Maryland Athletic Club offers multiple corporate wellness programs, tailored to each firm’s goals, Yanson said.

The most popular program is Healthy Start, a 60-day pass for unlimited access to the three MAC locations, for $60 per employee. It also includes 16 supervised sessions with a fitness coach. Many companies reimburse employees for all or some of the cost if they complete the program successfully.

The MAC also helps employees set individual goals, such as lowering blood pressure.

“Those are common goals we set, and it saves companies a lot of money,” Yanson said.

The results aren’t always quantifiable, several people said, but that’s not the point.

“You can’t say that implementing this wellness program is going to result in X number fewer medical claims,” Monk said, “but I think we all intuitively understand that if you get your team thinking about their health, they’ll make better lifestyle choices that eventually will lead to fewer medical claims and lower costs.”