Worksite wellness program for state employees could pay off

by Becky Gillette

Published: December 17,2007

The largest employer in the state —the State of Mississippi — is launching a new worksite wellness program that could produce major benefits by creating healthier state employees, reducing the costs of health insurance and medical care while also setting a good example for the rest of the state.

Gov. Haley Barbour is working with the Department of Finance and Administration, Office of State Employee Insurance, to roll out a state employee worksite wellness program. The State of Mississippi covers approximately 180,000 people, so a healthier workforce could reap major dividends for taxpayers.

“We are very much in the beginning stages of this voluntary program, which, in the long run, will be an essential part of promoting health awareness in our state,” Barbour said. “Right now, my staff is coordinating with representatives — or ‘health champions’ — from each agency to assist them in developing a worksite wellness program tailored to the specific needs of their own office. To achieve better results, it’s important that we allow key decisions to be made on the agency level by the ‘champions’ who know the different needs and desires of their department.”

The state’s role in the formation of this program is not to regulate, but rather to serve as a guide, providing adequate tools and resources to the participating agencies so they can tailor individual, appropriate wellness programs to meet their needs.

The concept of the state employee wellness program is simple. It will encourage state workers to lead healthier lives, which will, in turn, result in more productive workers and lead to a healthier state.

Barbour said although the state has made great strides in protecting the state’s healthcare industry from lawsuit abuse, it is clear to him that now is the time to focus on another healthcare crisis — the burden of chronic diseases. The challenge is to change the behavior of so many people who have been raised to eat unhealthy foods.

“We live in a state that traditionally eats fatty foods, and as a result we are burdened with diet-related diseases that plague our citizens,” he said. “Mississippi’s cardiovascular disease mortality rate is the highest in the nation, and is the leading cause of death in our state. Cancer is Mississippi’s number two killer and diabetes contributes to the deaths of 1,600 Mississippians each year. Mississippi also ranks number one — the highest in the nation — in obesity. These staggering statistics alone convinced me that it was time to get healthy, which is why I began the Healthy Mississippi initiative to promote disease management, to raise the next generation of Mississippians to improve their health now, which will ultimately lower the cost of healthcare in the future. We must turn these trends around and learn new and healthier eating habits.”

Programs like the worksite wellness initiative will encourage healthier employees in the workplace. And Healthy Mississippi will also focus on more and better ways to have healthier kids in schools and healthier adults and senior citizens in communities.

The program will focus on practical policies, such as reinstating physical education for school children and giving them healthier options in the cafeteria line. There is also a faith-based component to the program that reaches out to churches statewide to adopt wellness programs for their congregations. Barbour said the initiative is a good way to reach the African American community to better assist with specific disease management tools that targets this population.

“Instinctively, we know the importance of healthier lifestyles — lower costs, especially in healthcare, more job creation and a longer and better quality of life for all Mississippians, particularly minority populations who are more at risk for diabetes, cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure,” Barbour said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette4@cox.net.

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