Ever since Karen Straub had her thyroid removed because of cancer in 1999, she has struggled with her weight. She became diabetic and suffered from terrible acid reflux. So when her boss, California State Controller John Chiang, started a worksite wellness program for his staff, Straub decided to give it a try. She joined new Weight Watchers at Work meetings during lunch on Thursdays. She beams activity data from her accelerometer to the Healthrageous website, which allows her to track her activity and interact with her co-workers through a social media platform. She and her colleagues now compete to see who will be the top walker each week. She walks during her work breaks and for 15 minutes at lunch on most days. Since starting the program, Straub has lost 27 pounds. She doesn't have to take pills for her diabetes anymore. Her acid reflux has disappeared.
Chiang's job is to make sure California's tax dollars are well spent -- to root out waste, fraud, and abuse of public funds. Recognizing that the healthcare costs of state employees and retirees were among several threats to the state's fiscal health, Chiang commissioned a study to determine the proportion of costs that were due to modifiable factors such as diet, exercise and smoking. "We all understand that healthcare costs are spiraling out of control," Chiang said.
The California Public Employee's Retirement System health program covers nearly 1.3 million active and retired government employees and their families. Of $1.6 billion spent on healthcare for state employees in 2008, 22 percent was on high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and kidney disease -- much of which could have been prevented through diet and exercise. The Urban Institute, which conducted the study, estimated that if changes in diet and exercise could reduce the prevalence of these diseases by 5 percent to 15 percent, it would save the state $18 to $54 million per year.