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10,000 additional employees join Emanuel's wellness plan

Ten thousand more employees at five city agencies have signed on to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to raise monthly health insurance premiums by $50 for employees who fail to participate in a “wellness program” to manage chronic health problems.

Emanuel hopes to save $20 million in 2012 – and $240 million over four years – by riding herd over costly, but controllable problems like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and asthma. Obesity is also a contributor. So is heavy smoking.

Last fall, City Hall issued a “request for proposals” (RFP) from companies interested in managing the wellness program. Eleven companies responded.

Respondents were asked to provide eight levels of cost-per-participant with a “declining price scale” based on the number of eligible employees and spouses. The highest level was 45,000 participants.

By adding 10,000 employees at the Chicago Public Schools, Chicago Housing Authority, Park District and City Colleges and the Emanuel-chaired Public Building Commission, the participant pool has now topped the 45,000-employee benchmark needed to guarantee the lowest price.

Park District employees are members of all three unions along with non-union workers. The CHA, CPS and City Colleges employees are not union members.

Chicago taxpayers spend $500 million-a-year to provide health care for city employees, nearly 10 percent of the city’s annual budget. Four percent of the city’s work force accounts for 60 percent of the annual expense.

Emanuel campaigned on a promise to reduce those annual costs by $240 million over four years by implementing an incentive-laden health and wellness plan mirrored after the one pioneered by Safeway and Johnson & Johnson.

The program is expected to begin this summer by offering city employees and their dependents an enhanced screening to establish benchmarks and long-term goals, including weight loss, medication, exercise and kicking the smoking habit.

Participants would get wellness training. Coaches would ride herd over them on a bi-monthly basis to make certain they are following their prescribed nutritional, medical and physical fitness regimens. Those who refuse to participate would see their monthly premiums rise by $50. They do not have to succeed. They simply have to try.

If Emanuel hoped that reaching the 45,000-employee benchmark would turn up the heat on rank-and-file police officers, it did not work with the Fraternal Order of Police.

FOP President Mike Shields said the union “fought long and hard” for its own wellness program – without penalties or incentives ­ – and is determined to keep it.

“Our members do not have any restrictions on them, nor will they have to pay $50-a month for non-compliance,” Shields said Tuesday.

“Why would we switch if our wellness program is better than the one the city is offering? Why would we jump into a wellness program when we don’t know who the provider is? That’s like signing up for health insurance without knowing if it’s Blue Cross-Blue Shield or Aetna.”

Rank-and-file police officers remain the only major employee group that has not signed on to the mayor’s carrot-and-stick approach to drive down skyrocketing health insurance costs.