CU Pays Employees to Exercise

April 15, 2013

University officials say their rationale for the program is to reduce obesity-related health issues among its employees

DENVER — As of April 1st, employees of the University of Colorado have a little bit more of an incentive to get off the couch.  A new wellness initiative was launched to pay the state employees up to $300 a year if they track and document that they are exercising.

Just how much cash the wellness program will cost Colorado taxpayers isn’t clear, but a spokesman for the university estimates the pool available to fund the new wellness incentive could tip the budget scales between $450,000 and $750,000, depending on participation.

The university anticipates somewhere between a 6-10 percent participation from the approximately 26,000 eligible employees.

University employees who currently receive health insurance through the school’s CU Health and Welfare Trust can join the new “Move” program.

CU Health and Welfare Trust includes employees at The University of Colorado (CU), University of Colorado Hospital (UCH) and University Physicians, Inc.

“Move” is designed to increase movement and physical activity. Participants must track their physical activity by downloading and using an App every week.  If participants complete moderate to vigorous physical activity a minimum of 30 minutes, 12 times a month, they can earn $25 a month, with the incentive money disbursed to employees’ paychecks on a quarterly basis.

The app is equipped with a GPS-based system which they believe will keep employees from gaming the system and became available April 1 for Android, iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad users.

University officials say their rationale for the program is to reduce obesity-related health issues and physical inactivity among its employees.

“As you may know, obesity-related health issues are by far the largest driver in health care claims,” said Ken McConnellogue, Vice President of University Communications for CU.

But in March, two new studies published in the journal Health Affairs raise questions about the overall effectiveness and fairness of workplace wellness initiatives. One study reported that wellness programs have not been shown to be money savers.

“We probably shouldn’t think of wellness programs as cost-savers, at least not in the short-term,” says Gautam Gowrisankaran, a professor of economics at the University of Arizona  and author of a study involving a large wellness program at a major hospital in St. Louis.

Similarly in a second study reported on by Chicago Tribune, co-author Jill Horwitz, a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, said the study found, “Despite widespread enthusiasm for health-contingent programs, there is sparse evidence that these programs can reduce short- or even medium-term costs through health improvement.”

University officials counter that such studies are not directly analogous to CU’s efforts and that there are multiple studies on both sides of the issue.

“We expect a return of 3 to 1 on our investment in the program…we very much see this as an investment that will pay dividends,” said McConnellogue.  “Our view is that a well-administered plan will save the university and its employees money on health care costs.”

Critics find such perks for well-paid state employees difficult to swallow after The University of Colorado regents voted Tuesday to approve a new tuition model that raises in-state rates by 8.7 percent, bringing annual rates for students in the College of Arts and Sciences to $8,760.

The tuition hike comes just weeks after legislators approved a new tuition discount for illegal immigrants attending state colleges and universities.

According to a Daily Camera story, following the CU tuition vote, the Board of Regents unanimously approved a 3.1 percent merit-based compensation pool for faculty and exempt employees. The state is requiring a 2 percent raise for classified employees, plus an additional 1.6 percent raise is available based upon merit performance.

Last year’s 9.3 percent tuition increase helped fund raises for top Boulder campus administrators, including a $49,000 raise for Chancellor Phil DiStefano, which increased his 2011-2012 annual salary to $389,000.

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