Preckwinkle offering free downloads, other rewards for wellness to county workers

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Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle announced a “worksite wellness” program Monday in hopes of steering county government employees away from the emergency room and toward the salad bar and gym.

From free massages to music downloads, the county is using prizes to lure the estimated 22,000 county employees to participate in health fairs, walking programs and even taking a health risk assessment questionnaire that are part of the program.

For her part, Preckwinkle says she’ll participate in the “Walking Works” challenge that teams up employees of similar ages to compete, based on miles logged, for prizes each month.

“I’m going to get one of those pedometers,” Preckwinkle, 64, said during a news conference to announce the program. A free pedometer is given to participating staff. “I happen to have dogs, which is an advantage. You have to walk your dogs every day.”

Dr. Ramanathan Raju, CEO of the county’s health and hospital system serving the poor and uninsured, said this is part of a growing trend toward preventive health and goes a long way toward creating a “healthy and productive workforce.”

“Today this is a call to Cook County employees. They need to walk more, eat healthier and invest in your health and in your life,” Raju said.

Preckwinkle said the program – developed with the aid of Blue Cross Blue Shield and the blessing of labor leaders representing the largely unionized workforce – will be free to employees and won’t cost taxpayers anything.

Already, taxpayers pick up the tab for county government workers’ healthcare costs, around $300 million last year. The county’s budget is $3 billion.

About half of all healthcare costs are directly related to behavior, such as diet and exercise, Preckwinkle said.

“Our current claims show us the illnesses that many of our employees suffer from today,” Preckwinkle said. “We know we have a significant number of employees who have diabetes, cardiovascular disease, weight management issues, and who use tobacco. But until now we haven’t done anything about it.”

Unlike the program announced last year by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel – the county’s program is all voluntary. City employees who don’t participate must pay $50 more a month in health insurance premiums if they choose not to participate.

Pressed about why she didn’t have some kind of disincentive for not participating, Preckwinkle said: “In my view it’s much more effective to try to encourage people than threaten them. Maybe that’s because I’m a teacher and I found encouragement worked better.”

Betty Boles, of Service Employees International Union Local 73, said that she likes the program’s structure. “it’s good for morale and it’s good for your health,” Boles said.

“There is the carrot without the stick and we all know we should eat more vegetables.”

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