New PEBB Wellness Manager Expected to Analyze Myriad of Programs

Gov. Kate Brown recently ordered the Public Employees Benefit Board to hire a wellness manager. At the insistence of Sen. Betsy Johnson, the board opted to delay the expansion of one wellness program until the new hire has a chance to comprehensively determine which programs best improve health.

Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, spurred the Public Employees Benefit Board to think more seriously about cost containment at a meeting Tuesday, and the board agreed to slow down the approval of wellness programs until new staff could take a more comprehensive look.

“I just came out of a legislative session where cost containment was very front-and-center for me,” said Johnson, the Senate liaison to PEBB. “I’m not sure why we’re expanding a program that has dropping enrollment.”

Johnson critiqued a proposed expansion of the wellness program, “Healthy Team, Healthy U,” which encourages state workers, especially in office settings, to work together with coworkers to be more active and eat healthier. If the program’s use of peer pressure can lead to more people exercising and eating more fruits and vegetables, workers would likely be more productive and the state could save on healthcare expenses. The expansion would allow state employees to enroll in more than one 12-session level of the program in a single year.

But wellness programs require an upfront investment, and the state has spent $10.4 million on them in the past two years, including $4 million on Healthy Team Healthy U. The state’s contracted health insurers also have their own programs designed to produce healthier consumers, who are cheaper to insure.

PEBB Board member Kimberly Hendricks praised the Healthy Team Healthy U program as a well-received wellness program among her coworkers at Shutter Creek Correctional Institution in North Bend. “We made it fun in the workplace. We brought in healthy foods.”

Still, Gov. Kate Brown recently ordered the hire of a wellness manager, which board members Bill Barr and Shaun Parkman suggested should be the one tasked with whether to expand or keep Healthy Team Healthy U or the other myriad of wellness programs, and find which work the best to improve health based on data and evidence.

“The wellness of our employees fits with our bottom line,” Parkman said. “The question, is this the right mix?”

The board made no actual decision -- only four PEBB board members showed up for the Tuesday morning meeting in the dog days of August, leaving it short of a quorum. PEBB Director Kathy Loretz said they were close to interviewing applicants for the wellness manager.

Meanwhile, early 2017 claims data showed positive signs that the health plan for state workers is holding down costs after PEBB failed to meet inflation goals set by the Legislature and costs rose as much as 7 percent in 2016.

Claims for the first two quarters of 2017 were up just 0.7 percent, which allowed PEBB to come in at 5.4 percent on average for the 2015-2017 biennium, which ended June 30. PEBB is running a $8.4 million surplus so far this year, and the health plan is expected to have a $311 million reserve at the end of the year.

Reach Chris Gray at [email protected].

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