Hospital saves by spending on employee health  

Wellness program builds HCW loyalty  

The market for nurses in Southern California is vicious. Hospitals try to entice them away from competitors by offering signing bonuses, car payments, and even closing costs on home purchases.

Rather than chasing workers with incentives, Huntington Hospital in Pasadena took a different tact. The hospital builds loyalty by addressing the issues that matter most to employees: their personal health and their work/life balance.

“We wanted to be an employer of choice,” says Debra Ortega, vice president of human resources. “That didn’t just mean dollars and cents. That means helping with the challenges that face the health care worker on a daily basis.”

Huntington began with a survey of employees to identify their priorities. They responded that the health plan was their most important benefit.

So while other hospitals were restraining their health plans to cut costs, Huntington redesigned theirs to add benefits. The hospital offers a PPO, which allows employees to see specialists without a referral. Employees receive a greater benefit if they receive their health care from the hospital.

To offset the additional costs — as much as $16 million — the hospital has created a disease management and wellness program to help employees gain control of their health. They also developed a concierge service to help employees handle those stressful and time-consuming errands and chores that take up their off-duty time.

“We wanted people to think, ‘What would I lose if I left Huntington?’” says Ortega. “The plan has been a huge success for us. We listened to them and it really was a partnership. That’s how the wellness program came about.”

Huntington launched its wellness program on Valentine’s Day 2005 with a health fair. More than 1,000 employees participated in health screenings that included cholesterol and blood pressure checks and early detection of diabetes. “We found one person who could have had a stroke within hours had he not come and been sent to emergency,” recalls Patti Bennett, director of human resources.

Vendors promoted healthy products and the hospital served up healthy food, while employees had the opportunity to take a confidential risk assessment at computer kiosks. The hospital discovered that a significant number of employees have serious medical conditions, including cancer, asthma, coronary heart disease, congestive heart disease, back pain, and diabetes.

Employees can opt to receive monthly phone calls to help manage their conditions. For those with minor health risks, the calls may just involve motivational coaching to lose weight or exercise more. Those with serious conditions may receive calls from a nurse or licensed dietitian.

An outside contractor manages the program and maintains employee confidentiality. That is important so employees don’t feel they’re being watched, says Bennett. So far, about 30% of those eligible for the service have signed on, says Bennett. Even a modest improvement in disease management could bring significant savings in medical costs — along with lower absenteeism and better outcomes for the employees, she notes.

After all, Huntington Hospital pays 100% of its employees’ insurance premiums and highly subsidizes dependent coverage. The cost to employees hasn’t gone up in four years.

“I think our employees are very, very grateful,” she says. “We don’t want to have to increase [the cost to employees] because that’s very important to them. We need these programs to keep those costs under control.”  

Concierge service relieves stress  

Stress also can contribute to lower morale, higher injury rates, and poorer health. So Huntington Hospital has incorporated a concierge” program to help employees maintain a better work/life balance.

The hospital paid Errand Solutions in Chicago to set up its program on-site. Employees pay for the individual services, such as car wash, dry cleaning, shoe repair, or watch repair. One employee forgot his wife’s anniversary until the last minute. Within two hours, the concierge had obtained a dinner reservation and a dozen roses.

During the holidays, the concierge service wrapped some 1,300 presents — at no charge to employees.

“They have said, ‘You don’t know how you’ve changed my life. I no longer have to run errands on Saturday. I can spend time with my kids,’” says Ortega. “One employee has a handicapped husband. It’s a huge help. She has to work full time and take care of her husband.”

These programs have helped build loyalty. Turnover has declined from about 15% to 10%. That means fewer costs in hiring temporary staff to fill in and recruiting new nurses. “Employees really feel that there is a partnership here,” says Ortega.