As the cost of health care continues to increase, health insurance coverage is placing more emphasis on preventive health care.

“Some of the highest health costs in both financial and human terms are caused by diseases, such as heart disease and cancer,” according to a 2005 study report, “Workplace Visions,” by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). “Some studies link these diseases to related conditions such as smoking and obesity.”

But managing obesity or tobacco, alcohol and substance use can be more difficult for some employees than saving for retirement.

Help to ease stress
Employers and health insurers employ a number of strategies to encourage healthy behavior, some with greater success than others. Stress has been linked in various ways to various illnesses. About 76 percent of U.S. employers offer employee assistance programs (EAPs), which provide counseling for working through stressful changes, such as moving, a new job, graduation, marriage, divorce, a new baby or an “empty nest.” WSU provides an EAP, and employees are encouraged to tap into counseling services before situations escalate — perhaps to depression.

“Depression alone costs employers more than $30 billion in lost productivity each year,” according to the SHRM study, “and that is not counting the medical and pharmaceutical costs.”

To ease stress, SHRM recommends reducing constant stimuli and noise (like background radio or TV); better balancing work and life priorities; learning to say “No” to some outside invitations; and choosing work you love, no matter what it pays (or doesn’t).

Obesity not covered
Fighting obesity can save money, both in terms of the food bill and in medical costs. The SHRM report identified obesity as “a key precursor to common health problems, such as Type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol levels,” which themselves can lead to even more serious and costly diseases.

Only 23 percent of health care coverage in the United States will help employees pay for bariatric procedures (stomach stapling or gastric bypass) for weight loss, so it is cost effective to avoid becoming obese in the first place. Washington’s Health Care Authority (HCA) — which administers four health care programs, including the Public Employees Benefits Board (PEBB), and oversees the Uniform Medical Plan — does not cover such surgeries. Neither do 77 percent of other health plans in the U.S.

Smoking programs offered
Where the HCA in Washington has put its emphasis is on smoking cessation programs, since “health care associated with smoking (not including the tobacco products) costs Americans more than $90 billion,” said the SHRM report. Another report, from the Harvard School of Public Health and the World Health Organization, predicts that by 2020 tobacco-related illness will kill more people worldwide than any single disease.

Since benefits vary depending on the particular plan, WSU employees are encouraged to contact their health care plan carriers or medical providers for information on smoking cessation programs.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Health offers a smoking cessation program providing free tobacco patches and gum to Washington residents under age 30. For more information, WSU employees can call Jan Rauk at 335-2523 or e-mail at jmrauk@wsu.edu.