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Making Fitness Pay

Lewiston Tribune
September 17, 2006

By Elaine Williams of the Tribune

The barriers to staying fit fell for Marcia Oplinger when her employer allowed her to use on-site exercise equipment for free.

"At home there's always distractions,'' says Oplinger, a pharmacy technician at Gritman Medical Center in Moscow. "It's the perfect setting and the perfect opportunity so I feel bad if I don't take advantage of it.''

Gritman is among a growing number of employers in north central Idaho and southeastern Washington that reward workers for participating in wellness programs.

The offerings vary widely.

MaryJane Butters pays her 19 to 24 full-time employees at Paradise Farms near Moscow to exercise for 45 minutes to one hour each day.

"When you work a 40-hour week, you can't find time to exercise,'' Butters says. "That's the one shortcut people will take.''

Initially, Butters envisioned a team-building activity where all staff members walked together at lunch.

But she found employees' schedules and exercise habits were too diverse for that to work.

Participants in Gritman's Total Rewards Program can do everything from having a personal training plan created for them for $50 to completing a wellness profile.

Those who complete the wellness profile receive $100 in wellness bucks that can be used for purchases such as massages, nutritional counseling or yoga classes.

"We're a health-care provider,'' says Dennis Cockrell, human resources director at Gritman. "We need to walk the talk. If we're going to be telling everybody else to be healthy, then we need to do that as well.''

Regence BlueShield gives employees points for walking or other activities that can be redeemed for gift certificates at stores like Macy's and Home Depot, says Regence spokeswoman Georganne Benjamin in Boise.

The insurance provider discounts items like diet soda, water and baked potato chips in its vending machines.

Individuals benefit. Oplinger, who is 50, is meeting her goal of maintaining a trim figure and avoiding chronic health problems like diabetes.

"I exercise to counteract my chocolate cravings,'' says Oplinger, who has participated for five years.

It started as a way to fill time. She carpools to work each day from Troy with her husband and son. She finishes before they do in the midafternoon and used to spend the time reading or watching television.

"I'm really cheap,'' Oplinger says. "I don't want to pay for a gym.''

Oplinger changed her routine when the hospital opened its cardiac rehabilitation center to hospital employees when it wasn't in use.

The center is where heart patients do exercises similar to those for people who don't have cardiac disease. The advantage is they're closely monitored by medical staff so they don't exceed their limits.

Oplinger found she prefers the treadmill to walking outside because she knows exactly how far she's walked and how many calories she's burned.

"It's a time for me to unwind from my day,'' Oplinger says. "Now I'm at the point where if I miss my exercise time I just don't feel right. It's necessary.''

The value for employers is in the attitudes and productivity of their workers.

Happy employees provide better patient care, Cockrell says.

"They feel as if you are participating in them, which affects the bottom line because then they're committed to the work they're doing or to me as an employer,'' Butters says.

If employers want to reap the rewards of wellness they have to be willing to pay.

Butters estimates she spends about $23,000 each year in time where employees are exercising, not working.

Gritman doesn't yet know what expenses for its wellness program will be because it's so new and it's not clear how many employees will participate.

But if, for example, every one of its 448 employees did a wellness profile it would cost about $2,700, not counting the services purchased with wellness bucks.

The wellness profile is just one part of Gritman's multi-faceted program.

Gritman has an advantage in that the hospital provides many of the services that are a part of its wellness program.

But Cockrell points out that the hospital isn't earning revenue when employees are using their services with reward dollars.

One of the hopes is the money spent will be offset with savings in spiraling insurance premiums.

That has been the case at Regence, where 46 percent of employees in Idaho, Utah, Oregon and Washington participate in the wellness program introduced in 2004.

The insurance provider has seen a 6 percent decline in medical claims costs, Benjamin says.

"We're trying to educate employees so they can better understand the connection between health-related actions and the overall impact on costs.''


Williams may be contacted at or (208) 743-9600, ext. 261.