PEBB Delays Funding Employee Wellness Program
October 24, 2011—The Public Employees’ Benefit Board (PEBB) postponed voting to spend $165,000 on expanding the Wellness@Work program to state agencies when it met last week, citing the desire to see more concrete outcomes of the worksite wellness program.
The decision was fairly unexpected, given the vocal support among many of the board’s members. And the Oregon Educator Benefit Board (OEBB) decided to use an identical amount of money to implement the program in public schools, universities and community colleges during its October 13 meeting.
The program, which promotes health and wellness at the workplace, gives employers tools and resources to help their employees become healthier by stopping smoking, eating more nutritiously, losing weight and increasing physical activity. Examples of what employers might to are stocking vending machines with healthier snacks and beverages and creating smoke-free work places.
By lowering the obesity rate, eliminating smoking and other harmful health effects, medical costs can be reduced, work productivity increased and employees are less likely to call in sick, Mel Kohn, Oregon’s public health officer, told the PEBB board. “This is well documented,” he said. “By offering these benefits, we’re saving you money. You’ll have healthier state employees, and pay less for their benefits.”
“Having those opportunities available at the worksite goes a long way,” said Diane Lovell, who represents the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees. “We have the money. It’s a fairly modest investment for a large outcome.”
However, the board decided to postpone taking a vote until November because of the criticism and skepticism from its non-voting Legislative members: Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose) and Rep. Tina Kotek (D-Portland).
Kotek, regarded by many as a champion of public health issues, said she had no qualms with the program, but was concerned about how to measure its success.
“I don’t want to be difficult,” Kotek said. “But do we need to make this decision today? I’m not sure what the outcomes are, and I want to see what we’re buying.”
Fariborz Pakseresht, deputy director of the Oregon Youth Authority, is confident the results will lead to financial rewards. “When we invested in Weight Watchers, we were spending money, and we anticipated it would have returns,” he said. “And it did.”
Assuming the board moves to go ahead next month, the $165,000 would pay the salary and benefits for two-full time coordinators and one half-time research analyst at the Oregon Public Health Division, who would be responsible for surveying PEBB and OEBB members, and begin implementing the program in state and local government agencies, schools, universities, and other sites where PEBB and OEBB members work.
The money will come from PEBB’s Providence Health Improvement Fund, which has a $900,000 balance. That money is set aside for PEBB to pursue health improvement projects, said Rich Peppers, PEBB’s board chair and the SEIU Local 503’s assistant executive director.
Johnson, who was more skeptical of the program’s value than Kotek, questioned why the Public Health Division wanted PEBB to spend $165,000 on a program partly focusing on tobacco cessation, rather than use funds from the state’s Tobacco Prevention and Education Program. “Why take some fairly common sense approaches and make them cost $165,000?” she asked.
“You may characterize these approaches as common sense and simple, but if they were common sense and simple, they would have happened already,” Kohn replied. “It takes someone dogging this, problem solving and building awareness.”
Also, if PEBB used money from the tobacco program for Wellness@Work, state officials would have to cut other tobacco cessation programs. Wellness@Work “is an activity really focused on state employees,” he said, “Our tobacco cessation program is for all Oregonians.”
At some point, the Oregon Public Health Division wants to expand the program to the private sector. “If we can move forward and say that PEBB and OEBB are solidly behind this, we can help move that forward," Kohn said. "The more that this is in limbo, the more difficult it becomes to do that.”