By Lisa Zamosky
5:00 AM PST, January 5, 2014
After Dan Williamson unexpectedly landed in the hospital a year and a half ago and underwent heart surgery, his doctor told him that if he wanted to live a healthier life, he was going to have to lose weight.
So the 58-year-old chief executive of Aspen Medical Products Inc., an Irvine company that makes therapeutic braces for the spine, vowed to change. "I made a commitment to lose the weight," he says. "Not just to drop it off, but to systematically lose it and keep it off."
He lost 45 pounds and now exercises four days a week, he says. "My general health got better, my body fat went down, and it's easier for me to function and do the things I need to do, especially in a stressful environment."
Williamson decided to turn his experience into an opportunity for his company's 120 full-time employees. He brought in the fitness professionals who helped him develop an exercise program, and he offered his workers financial incentives to participate. Also available are "lunch and learn" sessions to promote more healthful eating.
Programs like this, offered as company health benefits, can help workers go a long way toward meeting personal goals and save money in the process.
"New Year's resolutions are really tough to stick with, and this gets harder when the expenses from your goals start adding up," says Napala Pratini, health analyst with NerdWallet, a website that offers free tools to help people save money.
Here are some tips for the coming year.
Use your preventive benefits. The Affordable Care Act requires most insurers to cover the full cost of many preventive services with no co-payments or other charges. In most cases, vaccinations, annual wellness visits and screenings for cancer and other health issues are available free of charge.
Checkups are a good place to start setting health goals in the new year, says Dave Morgan, senior employee benefits advisor with Morris & Garritano Insurance Services in San Luis Obispo. "You can come up with a well-informed starting point for your resolutions. You'll have more precise, valuable health goals."
And, as a result of learning upfront what your weight, blood pressure and cholesterol levels are, it will be easier as the year progresses to measure your progress toward your goals, Morgan says.
Your health plan can help. Your insurer probably offers more perks to help you reach your health goals than you think.
"Just because you don't see the benefits like smoking cessation and gym memberships doesn't necessarily mean they don't exist. Sometimes you've got to dig to find these extra benefits," says Josh Klapow, chief behavioral scientist with ChipRewards Inc., a Birmingham, Ala., technology company that creates health-related incentive programs.
Insurance plans now typically cover the cost of weight loss programs and weight loss surgery, when appropriate. You can get help with smoking counseling and treatment. There may also be discounts on dietitian services, and if you have a chronic condition such as diabetes, your health plan might put you in touch with a professional who can help you to better manage it.
Plan to exercise more in 2014? Ask whether your insurer offers a discount for you to join a gym. Most do.
Get well at work. Most large employers have wellness programs to help their workers make strides toward better health.
According to Helen Darling, president of the Washington-based National Business Group on Health, one common feature of these programs is rewards for participating in health screenings — short exams used to identify your risk for certain diseases.
These screenings can be a reality check to help you decide on New Year's resolutions, set benchmarks and then work toward them, Darling says. "Many people don't actually know their health status, and if you ask them, they almost always self-report as healthier than they are."
If a health issue is uncovered during your screening, you may be offered the chance to meet — for free — with a professional, such as a nutritionist or other type of healthcare coach, to address it.
Employers are offering rewards in some cases if you simply agree to watch a video about healthful diets or increasing physical activity. That may get your name into a lottery for a big prize. "Who wouldn't do that if you had the chance to get a flat-screen TV?" Darling says.
Want to quit smoking? Your employer could help with that too. Smoking cessation programs are common, and the federal healthcare law allows employers to offer even bigger rewards to encourage workers to stop lighting up in 2014.
And if eating better in 2014 is your priority, check out your employer's cafeteria. Many companies will reward workers for choosing salad over a cheeseburger at lunchtime.
"If the food isn't already free, you get a card, and if you eat the healthy choice for that day in the cafe, the ticket is punched and you'll get the 10th meal for free," Darling says.
Tap into employee assistance programs. Most large employers offer a confidential employee assistance program, and experts say it's a great resource that tends to go underutilized.
These are typically free programs to employees and their dependents that offer a wide array of benefits, including short-term substance-abuse or mental-health counseling, financial counseling, legal services, and resources for child and long-term care.
"They focus on providing resources for people going through a hard time, whether it's a divorce or something else that can lead to a whole bunch of other [health] consequences," Morgan says.
Check out community-based programs. Finally, there is a wealth of resources available through national healthcare organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Heart Assn. and the American Cancer Society, to name a few. They offer free information and resources to help people stay away from smoking, lose weight or reach other goals that affect short- and long-term health.
At his office in Irvine, Williamson says he is seeing results from the program he launched at work: It helped about 25 of his employees collectively lose 100 pounds, and workers reported generally feeling better.
Programs like his are good not only for employees but also for business, he says. "People are your biggest asset."
Zamosky is the author of a new book, "Healthcare, Insurance, and You: The Savvy Consumer's Guide."
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