Retirees Who Leave Employer Wellness Programs Can Be Drawn Back In

Armen Hareyan's picture
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Employer Wellness Programs

Many employees drop out of employer wellness programs after they retire, but they might be coaxed to return with program features such as regular mailings and telephone nurse counseling, according to a new study of a program offered by the United Automobile Workers and the General Motors Corp.

Retirees gradually dropped out of the more comprehensive parts of the program, including health screenings, counseling for risky disease behaviors and doctor's visit vouchers, probably because these services were mainly offered at the workplace, say Louis Yen of the University of Michigan Health Management Research Center and colleagues.

However, the GM retirees were more likely than active employees to use communication-based wellness program of newsletters and telephone calls, the researchers found in the study from the January/February 2006 issue of the American Journal of Health Behavior.

"Retirees frequently move and are not located in the same community as the employer. Therefore, mail, telephone and Internet programs may be the most successful in reaching this important group," Yen said.

Employees who participated in the wellness program before retiring were also more likely to participate in some way after retirement, the researchers found.

The GM wellness program began in 1996. Yen and colleagues analyzed program participation at two GM locations in Flint, Mich., and Anderson, Ind., between 1996 to 1999 and 2000 to 2002. The study included 5,862 employees who retired prior to the program in 1996; 6,065 employees who retired in 1998 and 1999; and 21,176 people who were active employees during the entire study.

The program included both comprehensive care such as jobsite screenings and communication care such as newsletters and phone counseling. About 34 percent of those who retired before 1996 participated in the wellness program between 1996 and 1999, but that rate dropped to 25 percent between 2000 and 2002. Almost half of those who retired in 1998 and 1999 participated in the program during that period, but only 23 percent were still participating in 2000 to 2002.

Participation rates remained relatively steady among active employees, ranging from 51 to nearly 60 percent of employees over the course of the study.

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"These rates clearly show that active employees had more convenient access to programs and took advantage of those opportunities," Yen said.

Yet in each of the study periods, from 1996 to 1999 and 2000 to 2002, the two groups of retired employees had higher participation rates in mailing and phone call-based programs than the active employees, the researchers discovered.

Recent studies suggest that wellness programs can benefit a company's bottom line by reducing absenteeism and giving companies a better return on the money they invest in their health benefits, according to Bradley Cardinal, a professor of exercise and sport science at the University of Oregon who has studied such employer programs.

Retirees, especially those under age 65, can be a financial burden to companies, however. They tend to be more costly for companies who provide their health benefit because they are in poorer health than active employees, but they are not yet receiving public benefits such as Medicare that could reduce the company's share of health costs, Yen and colleagues note.

Most employer wellness programs are not equipped to handle retirees, who could be costing employers money in the long run, Yen said.

"The vast majority of these programs are available only to active employees. Retired employees are often excluded from the health promotion program, even though many employers pay a large part of their health care costs," Yen added.

In November, the Associated Press reported that General Motors would cut 30,000 jobs in the United States and close down several plants in an attempt to rein in "skyrocketing healthcare expenses."

Dee Edington, Ph.D., co-author on the Yen paper, says that wellness programs should not disappear in the face of the GM cuts, since they could help the company contain its health care costs.

"I am very convinced that total health management programs embedded within benefit plans will greatly improve or maintain current health status and thus lead to decreased utilization and cost containment. Of course, this strategy applied at an earlier age would have even more impact during the employed years and carry over eventually to the age of the retirees," Edington says.

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