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Originally published September 20, 2011 at 2:30 PM | Page modified September 21, 2011 at 8:42 PM

County expects to save millions on health-care

King County employees are getting healthier, and that will save the county money — big money. Costs are so much lower than expected that the county says it will be able to save $23 million in this year's budget and will spend $38 million less than planned in 2012, County Executive Dow Constantine said on Tuesday.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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King County employees are getting healthier, and that will save the county money — big money.

Costs are so much lower than expected that the county says it will be able to save $23 million in this year's budget and will spend $38 million less than planned in 2012, County Executive Dow Constantine said Tuesday.

That could save jobs in other parts of county government, including sheriff's deputies and nurses, Constantine said.

It's all tied to the county's innovative Healthy Incentives benefit plan, inaugurated six years ago, that rewards employees for changing their habits — losing weight and quitting smoking, for example. The initiative has garnered national attention at a time of soaring health-care costs.

Under the program, employees can elect to take a health assessment, followed by a 10-week plan to improve their health. Physical activity, nutrition, weight management and stress management are included.

Employees have an incentive: They pay lower deductibles or co-pays if they take the assessment and even less if they complete the action plan.

Better health means fewer visits to the doctor and more money in the pockets of employees who don't have to buy drugs or pay their share of hospital visits.

"Our Healthy Incentives plan is succeeding, containing costs better than we could have hoped," Constantine said.

As a result of the program, Constantine added, smoking has declined 40 percent among county employees and 2,000 workers have lost a total of 24 tons of weight.

Detective Jessica Cline, with the King County Sheriff's Office, is among those who lost weight. She said she joined Weight Watchers four years ago and lost 75 pounds.

The drop in anticipated health-care spending also can be attributed to other factors, Constantine said. Among them:

• Employees saved the county $3 million by choosing generic prescriptions over brand-name drugs.

• Enrollment is up in Group Health, one of two health plans available to the county, but one that saves the county about $4,300 per employee each year.

Additionally, Group Health says its plan saves county employees an average of nearly $800 a year in out-of-pocket expenses.

County workers also have the option of joining the county's preferred-provider plan, KingCare, operated by Aetna, although that plan will switch to Regence BlueShield next year.

"While health-care costs spur up, our employees are bending the trend," Constantine said. The reduction in the health-care budget means other services will be saved, he said.

He wouldn't give many specifics, saying that will be part of his budget message Monday. But he said the cost savings will protect the jobs of 12 sheriff's deputies and 20 nurses with the King County Health Department.

The county projected health-care spending at about $200 million this year for its 13,000 employees. Because the county is self-insured, every dollar saved goes back to county services.

Budget Director Dwight Diveley said savings will return to the county departments where savings occurred.

In data released Tuesday, the county said it has seen a decrease in the smoking rate among county employees, from 10 percent to 6 percent. The county also reports fewer claims for pneumonia and other respiratory illnesses associated with smoking.

So far, there's been a decrease in claims for bronchitis, asthma, pneumonia and flu treatment, as well as claims related to obesity and alcohol abuse. No significant change was reported in claims for cholesterol or blood-pressure problems, and there was an increase in claims related to stress and depression.

That's in part because of a new mental-health parity act that requires health-care insurers to pay for mental-health problems, and because many workers are in stressful jobs, county officials say.

Craig Riggs, who has worked 20 years with the Department of Community and Human Services, said he almost died in 2007 from a heart attack. He said he's been exercising and improving his health; while he used to take about 10 sick days a year, he hasn't taken any in the past three years.

He worries about cuts in his department. "I hope this will save jobs," he said.

Constantine said he was a skeptic when the county began its Healthy Incentives program, conceived by former King County Executive Ron Sims. "But the data is in, and I'm proud of the results."

Times staff reporter Jeff Hodson contributed to this report.

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054

or sgilmore@seattletimes.com

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