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Charlotte's Healthiest Employers: At CaroMont Health, managers are fit to lead


CaroMont Health stumbled out of the gate a year ago with the controversial marketing slogan “Cheat Death” to draw attention to its efforts to combat obesity, diabetes and heart disease. But an internal focus on helping employees eat better and make healthy lifestyle choices is finding a better reception for managing the company’s costs.

The controversy cost Randall Kelley his CEO job, but the hospital system has moved ahead with its three-year-old program that offers group programs and one-on-one health counseling. The initiative is made easier because the employer is also the health-care provider.

“There was a lot of stress in the transition as our senior leadership was reduced from 18 to 14, so everyone’s workload increased,” says Andrea Serra, vice president of community-care services and a member of the management team.

CaroMont’s wellness director, Debbie Bellinger, developed a program targeting wellness goals for the senior managers that included eight weeks of health lectures and weekly individual coaching sessions.

“At senior leadership meetings we do calisthenics,” Serra says. “People have permission to stand in the middle of meetings doing arm circles. It’s not frowned upon at all.”

CaroMont’s wellness program is not limited to the top brass. All employees seeking a healthier lifestyle can receive the same one-on-one coaching and guidance from the program’s dedicated registered dietitian and a registered nurse. All employees have free membership to the CaroMont Health & Fitness Center, which offers cardio training, strength training and over 40 group-exercise classes a week. Clinical monitoring is provided before, during and after exercise as needed.

The wellness program started in late 2010 to help employees avoid weight gain during the holidays. For seven weeks, 310 employees signed up for a program designed to help them watch their weight during a season of overindulgence.

“When we ended the program in early January, the average weight loss was 4.3 pounds,” Bellinger says. “The results for those who completed the program were incredible.”

The takeaway from that success was to offer programs to employees. Programs such as Embrace the New You, 30 Days to Sanity, Health Revolution and the Healthy Back program are targeted to teams of employees.

“The lesson our employees have learned from these group programs is that if you hold our hand and go through these programs, you will get positive results,” Bellinger says.

If positive results aren’t enough motivation, CaroMont offers incentives to employees to pursue healthy habits with ongoing monetary deposits into their health-care reimbursement accounts to cover out-of-pocket medical expenses. For example, employees who hit the gym eight times a month see $25 per month added to their HRA.

Those who work to lower their body mass index to a benchmark receive a $50 HRA deposit and another $25 for each quarter the measure holds steady or drops. Employees who complete a smoking-cessation class get $25 and another $50 six months later for remaining tobacco-free. All non-smokers receive $50 in their HRA each year.

About 30% of CaroMont’s 4,000 employees were participating in programs to earn HRA credits last year.

In 2013, CaroMont’s average claims cost per month per employee was $771, down from $839 in 2012 but up from $756 in 2011. The 2012 bump was typical at the start of any wellness initiative, Serra says, when screenings reveal medical issues that need treatment.

Overall, she says, the hospital touts that almost three years into its wellness program, per-employee costs are holding steady when most employers are encountering double-digit increases.

CaroMont is working to stem the increase in chronic disease among employees by creating a culture of wellness. It found that workers who devote themselves to caring for others don’t always do the same for themselves.

CaroMont reworked the menu in its cafeteria to make healthy choices more abundant and less expensive than the unhealthy fare. A turkey burger and apple is less expensive than a hamburger and French fries. The cafeteria also offers sushi. After diners said they enjoyed baked items as much as the fried versions, the deep fryers were removed from the kitchen.

Items have labels that provide nutrition information.

“We reformatted the cafeteria — not to take food options away — but to create an environment for healthy living,” Serra says.

One of the cafeteria’s biggest sellers used to be macaroni and cheese, but because of product placement and changes in pricing, employees started buying healthier dishes. “Since demand isn’t as high, we don’t offer mac and cheese every week,” Serra says. “It’s evolution.