Kaiser Permanente, Aetna, Cigna invest in wellness centers to cut costs

With estimates that such programs can reduce costs by $3.27 for every dollar spent and building wellness centers can bring a 10 percent return, more and more providers and payers are getting into the wellness game.
By Susan Morse
11:30 AM

The entrance of the new Kaiser Permanente medical clinic in Manhattan Beach, California has the look and feel of an open yoga studio.

In fact, the waiting room is called a public square at the Manhattan Beach Medical Offices, and starting this spring, yoga and other exercise classes, healthy cooking classes and community events will be offered during the day -- and if there's a demand by the community -- at night and on Saturdays.

The new medical clinic which opened in December, represents the first of its kind for Kaiser, said Maziyar Shoaee, MD, the facility's physician-in-charge who also practices internal medicine.

"We want the community to feel we're part of them, it's a new approach really," Shoaee said. "When you walk in, it doesn't have the feel of a medical clinic anymore. It's warm, welcoming, a spa-like feel."

The 9,000 square feet facility shows what can be done to promote wellness in a small space. There is no gym, workout machines, or swimming pool.

"Basically the practice of medicine has fundamentally changed," Shoaee said. "At Manhattan Beach, we foster health beyond the office visit. We extend the physician influence beyond the exam room. It's not just a place they come in when they're sick, they come in when they're fine."

As the wellness programs are getting underway, there are as yet no financial analytics to show if they're paying off in healthier patients. Shoaee said he believes the numbers, when they do come in, will reflect that.

The bottom line is that for every dollar invested in a wellness program, the yield is a $3.27 decline in healthcare costs, according to the Healthcare Trends Institute. The institute also reported that employers realize a $2.80 return on investment for every dollar they invest in wellness.

Hospital executives are increasingly investing in wellness centers when they think of new construction. A study by the Medical Fitness Association suggest wellness center construction offers a return on investment of between 6 and 10 percent.

Insurers, too, are investing in programs that have moved beyond tobacco-free living sessions and gym membership benefits.

Cigna offers online, workplace mindfulness programs to help employees battle stress. Aetna has been promoting mindfulness in its marketing materials. In fact, the insurer recently ran a four-part sponsored series on mindfulness with popular news and culture website Buzzfeed.

Mindfulness, a process defined as "being in the moment," results in employees who are less stressed, better focused and more productive, according to Paul Coppola, head of wellness program strategy and innovation at Aetna.

Mark Bertolini, CEO of Aetna, initiated the program after a skiing accident 12 years ago left him with a broken neck and required the use of prescription pain medication. He credits meditation, a part of mindfulness, with helping him to heal without the continued use of pain medication.

In 2012, Aetna rolled out Mindfulness at Work, a 12-week, online meditation program, along with a yoga program called Viniyoga Stress Reduction and a mindful eating program called Metabolic Health in Small Bytes.

Classes are consistently full, he said.

"The mindfulness, typically in just productivity alone, we've seen a $3,000 return per individual," he said.

Total market growth is 3 to 5 percent each year, according to Coppola.

"We've very vested in this space," Coppola said. "We're going to see continued growth. Really the response in the industry is positive."

An estimated 75 to 80 percent of Aetna covered employers are offering some type of wellness program, he said. About 90 percent of their employers offer health assessment and biometric screening.

This aligns with a Healthcare Trends Institute study that reports 76 percent of all employers offer some type of wellness program, and 87 percent offer incentives, spending an average of $693 per employee, up from $260 in 2009.

"Seventy to 80 percent of employers are offering a health assessment, focusing on the identification of risk," Coppola said. "It's giving people permission to feel their best. We've built a holistic program that focuses on all aspects, not just physical. How do we identify risk for individuals? Through lifestyle programs we can see improvements."

Twitter: @SusanJMorse

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