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Last week, President Obama -- who, like several of his predecessors, is a dedicated exerciser -- met with industry leaders to discuss ways to improve employee wellness and health. The idea is employees who hit the gym regularly will experience fewer health problems, leading to savings down the road.

"As a result of many successful programs at businesses across the country, workers have become more engaged in their own health care, productivity is increasing, absenteeism is dropping, and employers are passing some of their health care savings to their workers," the White House said in a statement earlier this month.

The push for a healthier workforce will extend to civil servants. Obama has directed the Office of Personnel Management to work with other agencies to "explore the feasibility of developing such a plan for federal employees and their workplaces."

OPM hasn't released any details about options it is considering. But if the federal plan is modeled after private sector and state-level efforts, it would emphasize assessing employees' health, and initiating programs to address shortcomings. Perhaps most important, it would include incentives for employees to participate in fitness and other classes.

Many private sector companies have cut their costs in the long run by making upfront investments in employees' health. For instance, Coors Brewing Co., based in Golden, Colo., reported that its wellness program, first implemented in the early 1980s, has seen a $5.50 return on investment for every $1 spent.

Such programs -- what industry experts call "population health management" -- also have taken hold in state governments.

Ohio, for example, established the Take Charge! Live Well program in 2007 as part of an effort to promote good health and keep expenses low during a budget crunch. The program gives employees $25 to have their health assessed by an insurance provider. The provider then suggests a wellness program, and the state will cover up to $100 of the costs for employees who choose to follow the recommendation. The program is relatively new, but 60 percent of Ohio employees already are involved.

Alvin Jackson, director of the Ohio Department of Health and one of the officials in charge of implementing the state's plan, participated in the Obama round-table last week, along with representatives from Johnson & Johnson, Microsoft, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, Safeway, REI, and Pitney Bowes.

Federal agencies currently develop their own employee health programs and the offerings vary widely. The Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management, for instance, will compensate employees 50 percent of their fitness and wellness costs annually, up to $275 for a private fitness center and $375 for a wellness intervention programs.

The Veterans Affairs Department gives its employees access to many of the facilities available to veterans, and has a component -- the VHA National Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention -- dedicated to long-term health care management. On its Web site, the agency heavily promotes its MOVEmployees campaign, modeled after a similar plan to reduce obesity in veterans.

The department has several employee wellness coordinators who help implement programs ranging from regular jogging and walking campaigns to smoking cessation classes. This focus on employee health dates back to the early 1980s.

Richard Harvey, program manager for health promotion at the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, said VHA is working on a health appraisal for employees and veteran clients to help target its programs.

"Healthy employees are more engaged, they take better care of their patients," Harvey said. "There's a lot of support at the highest levels to be doing this, not just because it's the right thing to do, but for economic and patient care reasons."

In an August 2008 paper, Harvey outlined 15 crucial points for a good wellness program, including health assessments, incentives, coaching and high employee involvement. He noted wellness efforts could be very effective in the federal government.

"Given the size of the federal workforce, significant cost savings in the government's contribution to health insurance premiums for employees could be achieved if a majority of that population were participating in active wellness programs," Harvey said.

Current regulations prevent government agencies from offering employees incentives to get in shape -- but Harvey said he was working with OPM to explore such issues. "It takes a while to change things in the government," he added.

Of course, everyone likes incentives -- but disincentives are another possibility, and one that's more likely to raise eyebrows

Last year, the Alabama State Employees Board caused a stir when it announced that it would be implementing a $25 monthly fee for obese employees, which they could avoid by enrolling in a wellness program.

The bottom line: If you aren't already paying attention to your health, you might have a reason to start soon.

 
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