Go Viral or Go Home

From CMRC: How to create and nurture a culture of healthy living.

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One thing always nagging at county officials is how to mitigate costs and spend tax dollars wisely. Budgeting for workers compensation, insurance liability, building and vehicle maintenance usually generates lots of discussion and debate. But what about the cost of health care?

Don’t ignore this significant cost driver, says Mark Zollitsch, TAC Wellness Consultant, because health care will become an even greater factor in long-term spending. However, if counties can act now to encourage healthy lifestyles and habits among employees, they may end up becoming major savers instead of spenders.

That’s the message Zollitsch is preaching around the state and, more recently, at this year’s County Management and Risk Conference in Galveston in April. In his presentation, he urged counties to “go viral” and take advantage of some proven strategies to get county leaders and their employees onboard with programs that promote healthy living and reduce the risk of disease.

For the last four years, Zollitsch has been working with many counties on instituting Health County, TAC’s results-oriented wellness program, which offers various methods to design and implement programs tailored to each county. Some counties, for example, buy wearable fitness devices for employees to track their exercise regime, while others choose to emphasize healthy lifestyle choices or implement county specific incentives for participants meeting certain goals, such as giving up smoking or getting an annual physical.

With the cost of health care premiums tripling over the last 15 years, Zollitsch predicts that concerning trends will continue unless preventive policies and programs are enacted as soon as possible. Otherwise, the cases of diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiac problems and a host of other problems will escalate in the general population, often with devastating consequences to the individuals and their families.

Some Healthy County members have already seen impressive results, he said.

Chambers County, for one, adopted an awards program that promised up to $300 for each employee volunteering to pursue annual physicals, medical tests and healthy lifestyle activities. The program saw a participation rate of 92 percent.

Rather than incentives, Glasscock County relied on support and enthusiasm from the commissioners court and a proactive wellness coordinator. The county also purchased upgraded fitness devices for all employees. Three-fourths of the staff (29 in all) hit the walking trails and logged a total of some 1,000 miles a week, which made a big difference in their health profiles.

“If there’s a silver bullet in health care and lifestyle, fitness is it in terms of changing numbers, improving health,” he said.

He said one county official in West Texas summed up her attitude before joining the program, saying, “I was sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.” Wearing her fitness device to monitor exercise, eating more vegetables and eliminating grains and dairy from her diet, she lost 42 pounds and all her aches and pains disappeared. As an added bonus, she discovered that by adding strength training, her mental focus improved.

That’s why Zollitsch wants the message of healthy choices to “go viral” because the more people who participate, the more that others will want the same positive outcomes. “When results are visible and other people see you doing it, that’s when it catches on and goes viral.”

He said health improvement programs are available to all Texas counties, regardless of whether they belong to the Texas Association of Counties Health and Employee Benefits Pool (TAC HEBP). He said most health insurance providers offer assistance, such as coaching, to aid people wanting to start to exercise or change their eating habits.

One idea he recommends is establishing a wellness committee of employee representatives to come up with health promotion ideas compatible with their county and to scrutinize existing policies that might discourage healthy habits. Ask what kind of environment does the county offer if smoking is allowed in county vehicles? Or what message does the department head send when she arrives at the staff meeting with a large box of donuts? Challenge existing practices, he urges.

Most of all, Zollitsch wants all county employees to know that TAC has staff available to help them set up any sort of wellness program. TAC also emails a monthly wellness newsletter, “Healthy Byte,” which features articles, recipes, stress relieving tips and examples of what counties around the state are doing to get healthy.

As every county is unique, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to creating and nurturing an environment that promotes healthy living. But a commitment to a vision for a healthier culture – and sharing success stories along the way – will surely help make the idea go viral.