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Health coaches nag employees to better care

To fight spiraling health care costs, corporate America is taking an ever more proactive approach to manage employees' health. Companies call it "health coaching," a minor intervention before the worst happens, but fears remain that the approach will turn into an intrusion of privacy. CNBC's Bertha Coombs reports.
/ Source: CNBC

For Myrtha Suralie, keeping things rolling at UPS' New York sales office is no sweat, but keeping her diabetes in check during her pregnancy was another story.

She was confined to a hospital bed her entire third trimester, with a blood sugar level of 400, almost four times as high as that of a healthy person, potentially life-threatening to her and her baby.

That was when she received a life-changing call from a health coach hired by her company.

"She told me that they would monitor me throughout the entire time of my pregnancy," Suralie recalled.

UPS has been offering health coaching to its employees for more than a year. The company hires outside firms who mine medical records for potential red flags and reach out to employees with chronic illness like diabetes and heart disease. By coaxing these at-risk employees into better sticking with prescription-drug and behavior-change regimens, the company hopes to save money by avoiding increasing health insurance premiums.

Suralie’s weight shot up to above 200 pounds from 145 pounds during her pregnancy, a troubling sign for a patient of Type 2 diabetes, which is closely linked to obesity.

Her health coach redesigned her diet and helped her stick to it by frequent counseling. Now she had given birth to a healthy baby boy, come back to shape and gone back at work.

Like UPS, more companies are combating the spiraling health care costs by taking an ever more proactive approach.

Sixty-seven percent of American companies now either have or plan to implement similar coaching or prevention programs to boost worker health, a survey of 450 major American corporations conducted by Hewitt Associates, a human resources consulting firm, found.

Nineteen percent of firms installed performance-based medication offerings, waiving co-payments for prescription drugs that are proved to be effective and paying a premium for employees to go to higher-rated treatment providers.

"We are connecting people to their benefits like never before," said Randal Price, a health and productivity manger at UPS.

Even more common, companies install wellness programs to offer support to employees' positive behavior changes like quitting smoking or losing weight.

"These programs increase a company's competitiveness, protect workers from on the job injuries, and that can also mean more take-home pay for workers," said Betsy McCaughey, a healthcare expert with Hudson Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.

Obesity adds about $1,500 to the cost of a worker's insurance premium; smoking $1,850, she said.

But critics say programs like these can work like a Big Brother. Already some companies are asking employees to pay higher co-payments based on obesity and smoking. Giving companies free pass in digging up employees' medical records, they fear, might give away too much information.

"We are very concerned about the civil liberties implications if this data were to somehow to get out into other situations," said Michael Dixon of the Libertarian National Committee.

That concern has contained UPS' health coaching program by far. Only 30 percent of employees reached by health coaches have signed on the program; others reject what they see as an intrusion of privacy.

The company says the program is completely voluntary, and conducted by a third-party firm, which excludes the possibility that UPS will take action against employees with health problems.

"We still have people who are concerned with that, and may not engage with us," health director Price said. "But at least we've introduced the program."

Myrtha Suralie is sticking with coaching.

"It makes me more upbeat and more relaxed, and everything is going good for you and you're able to produce more," she said.

The company's hoping success stories like Suralie's will encourage more employees to sign on. Otherwise, it's a costlier approach to manage care.

"In the short run at least, we're going to see costs go up," said Jeff Munn of Hewitt Associates. "The hope is over the long haul, the return on investment will be there."

"If we can keep the health risk of UPS population at or below where it's at in a maintenance, that's success," said Price.